Nippon Life Insurance Company History

3-5-12, Imabashi, Chuo-ku
Osaka 541-8501

Telephone: (06) 6209-5525
Fax: (03) 5510-7340

Mutual Company
Incorporated: 1889
Employees: 72,784
Total Assets: ¥43.9 trillion ($365.3 billion, 2003)
NAIC: 524113 Direct Life Insurance Carriers

Company Perspectives:

We aim to be the company that customers trust the most in any operating environment, no matter how challenging. To this end, we are working to build an even stronger management foundation for our operations. All of us, the management and staff of Nippon Life, will continue to exert our utmost efforts to fulfill our responsibility as an insurance underwriter and will strive to offer the best, most comprehensive insurance services in both life and non-life insurance sectors.

Key Dates:

Sukesaburo Hirose establishes Nippon Life in Osaka.
The company reorganizes itself as a mutual life insurance company.
Nippon Life originates made-to-order insurance, an industry first.
The company establishes the industry's first overseas real estate subsidiary.
By now, women constitute nearly 95 percent of Nippon Life's workforce.
Deregulation in Japan's insurance industry begins.
Subsidiary Nissay General Insurance Company and Dowa Fire and Marine Insurance Company merge to form Nissay Dowa General Insurance Company.

Company History:

Nippon Life Insurance Company operates as the largest life insurance provider in Japan and one of the world's largest companies based on total assets and policies in force. The firm offers individual and group life and annuity products, medical care and long-term insurance products, other non-life products, and asset management services. Nippon Life is also involved in reinsurance through alliances with Swiss Reinsurance Company and Munich Reinsurance Company. Nippon Life has a strong network of overseas subsidiaries and stands as the only Japanese insurer to underwrite group insurance products in the United States. The company and its domestic counterparts have struggled since the mid-1990s due to competition brought on by deregulation, low interest rates, a faltering stock market, and a sluggish domestic economy.

As Japan's largest insurer, Nippon Life has a remarkable number of firsts to its credit, beginning in 1889, when the company originated the policies that helped make it the first major life insurance company in Japan. In 1947, Nippon Life also became the first of Japan's life insurance companies to reorganize itself as a mutual life insurance company. In 1959, the company originated made-to-order insurance, combining payment on maturity and payment on the death of the policyholder--a product innovation that dominated the market for more than a decade. The 1970s saw a flurry of Nippon Life product innovations. The company had pursued a vigorous program of overseas investment since about 1915, and in 1981 it achieved another first when it established the industry's first overseas real estate subsidiary. That same year, Nippon Life became the first Japanese life insurance company to acquire real estate in the United States--a 50 percent interest in a New York City office building.

Long since an industry front-runner, Nippon Life has traditionally placed a high priority on its close relationships with other companies, both in Japan and overseas. As an underwriter and purveyor of financial services as well as an investor, Nippon Life is committed to globalization. Despite some necessary retrenchment of foreign investment to cope with market conditions, Chairman Josei Itoh continues to emphasize globalization in the 21st century.

Origins in the Late 1800s

Close relationships among influential financial institutions in the busy mercantile center of Osaka in the late 1880s created the opportunity for Sukesaburo Hirose to found Nippon Life. In the three decades that had passed since Japan's dramatic opening to Western commerce and culture, the centers of trade had begun to reflect a new receptivity on the part of consumers to concepts that were well established overseas. The idea of providing personal financial protection for future exigencies was not entirely foreign, but for centuries it had taken the form of mutual-aid societies centered within religious communities.

Hirose, a banker from Shiga Prefecture, sensed that a secular form of financial protection would be readily accepted in a busy urban center such as the Kansai region. He consulted bank executives in Osaka about starting a company. The ten biggest banks there had formed a powerful bankers' association, which, with the new Meiji government's help and encouragement, eventually controlled the supply of money in Osaka. These bankers helped Hirose cope with such problems as opposition from rival business factions, and on July 4, 1889, Nippon Life began operations in Osaka as a limited company.

Public acceptance came quickly. As residents of an island nation with limited resources, the Japanese felt personally vulnerable, and opportunities to gain protection from future adversities have generally been welcomed. For example, Japan has traditionally had one of the highest ratios of savings to income. This factor--along with a need to trust one another as members of close-knit, interdependent communities--has conditioned Japanese consumers to buy a large amount of insurance.

By April 1890, Hirose opened Nippon Life's first branch office--a storefront in Tokyo. Three years later, visitors to the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago could witness Hirose's rapid outreach to the overseas market: Nippon Life's collection of annual reports and bilingual versions of its prospectus. The company was neither tapping overseas markets nor investing in them yet, but it did gain visibility as a basis for future outreach to foreign markets.

The next branch office to be opened--in Kyushu in 1895--reflected the company's growing prosperity. It was a spacious, free-standing building. Before the turn of the century, Nippon Life was Japan's top purveyor of life insurance based on insurance-in-force figures. The company became an important lender to local merchants. Rapid growth continued through the first decade of the 20th century and accelerated as Japan entered the world political arena as a World War I Allied power. By 1916, Nippon Life was investing in British, French, and Russian bond issues.

In the early 1920s, growth slowed with the pace of the post-World War I economy and as a result of the widespread destruction of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. The following year, the company established the Nippon Life Lifesaving Society, described in the company's literature as "a major step forward" because it directly supported healthcare services.

Intensive direct marketing helped turn Nippon Life's growth curve upward by the end of the decade, and the company regained its leadership position in contracts issued. Team spirit among personnel was cultivated formally through sales training and informally through company-sponsored athletics. At one such session in 1933, management made the prophetic announcement: "Nippon Life aims to be number one in the world."

As preparations for war went forward in the 1930s, Nippon Life developed one of its innovations--a new type of insurance based on the contribution method (an allocation of profits that has since become the basis of most Japanese-issued insurance). The new insurance went on the market in 1940, and Nippon Life insurance-in-force contract values soared to approximately 20 percent of the nation's total.

Postwar Growth

Destruction and defeat in World War II brought Nippon Life's progress to a standstill. In 1947, under General Douglas MacArthur's forces, Nippon Life took its first steps toward recovery when the company reorganized itself as a mutual life insurance company. Again under strict control by a government encouraging its growth, the company began to cope with problems such as forfeiture of overseas holdings and inflation that not only devalued insurance contracts but also slowed development of new business. By 1949, however, Nippon Life had recovered sufficiently to start a new community service: a "mobile angels clinic" in the form of a van carrying medical services to underserved areas. By 1950, some businesses were already beginning to prosper and income was on the rise.

The company introduced another product in the 1950s that immediately became popular: monthly-installment-based insurance. At the same time, women began to figure prominently among the company's representatives, who fanned out on door-to-door sales sweeps each morning after a brief pep rally. In 1953, female sales representatives numbered 2,000. By 1990, there were more than 80,000, constituting some 95 percent of Nippon Life's workforce.

Nippon Life introduced the first made-to-order insurance with a term rider, combining payment on maturity and payment on the policyholder's death, in 1959. It became a leading product throughout the following decade and well into the 1970s. The company introduced a large-scale IBM computer system in 1962 to automate its burgeoning sales and investment records.

The 1960s were marked by further expansion into many areas of business and community service--corporate welfare and pension plans, for example. With the increased variety of company activity came increased emphasis on training, and in 1961 the company built a special training facility at Nakanoshima. In 1963, Nippon Life opened its Nissay Musical Theatre in Tokyo. As the nation's economy boomed, raising profits and personal incomes, the traditions of saving and investing in insurance and other financial products remained strong, supporting further company growth.

In the 1970s, some government restrictions were lifted, which made it possible for Nippon Life to develop and introduce a new range of insurance-related products. Individual term insurance and annuity plans and life insurance related to asset formation were products that continued to be popular. The company also diversified its investment portfolio, adding consumer loans, real estate, bonds, and other equities. As deregulation spread from the Western economies, Nippon Life had new opportunities for risk-taking.

With the first purchase of real estate interests in the United States in 1981, Nippon Life acquired more of the type of investment the company has traditionally favored: long-term income properties. Not all these investments have been successful from the start, however. For example, among the large office towers the company purchased in major U.S. cities was a $200 million building in Dallas, Texas, that was slow to lease.

The stock market crash in the late 1980s provided some sobering experiences. Nippon Life's strong asset base, however, made such events affordable as learning experiences. For example, seven months after paying $508 million for a 13 percent share in Shearson Lehman Brothers in 1987, the value of Nippon Life's stake in the company had dwindled to about $225 million. Shearson's majority owner, American Express, began to offer American Express cards through Nippon Life's salespeople. Knowing how to benefit from close ties with other businesses continued to be a key factor in Nippon Life's success throughout history.

Despite some liberalization, the life insurance business in Japan was still under strict, but favorable, government control in the late 1980s. Nippon Life dwarfed its competitors in sheer asset size at this time, as well as in the number and value of contracts. Among the company's greatest assets was its good sense of timing and the patience to get to know a market thoroughly before entering it. Because Nippon Life did not rush into a market without thorough research, the company did not plan to compete for life insurance sales in the United States. Although the company's investment capital overflowed domestic opportunities as the 1990s began, market reverses triggered a quick hold on investment in the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia during the late 1980s, a policy that stayed in effect until signals of a stable recovery were detected. Nippon Life's management made it clear that prompt expansion--notably into the European Economic Community and Southeast Asia--would come when the conditions were right.

Overcoming Obstacles in the 1990s and Beyond

By the early 1990s, Japan's banking sector, along with the insurance industry, was experiencing difficulties brought on by a plethora of bad or non-performing loans and a faltering stock market. During the prosperous years of the 1980s, many banks and insurance companies, including Nippon Life, invested significantly in both real estate and stocks. This investment strategy, however, came back to haunt many companies when the Japanese property market collapsed in the early 1990s. In fact, a 1992 Wall Street Journal article reported that Nippon Life had invested approximately one trillion yen during the bubble years of the 1980s. By 1992, those investments had dwindled in value and were worth just 600 billion yen. According to Barron's, Nippon Life and its domestic counterparts lost 11 trillion yen--$82.1 billion--in unrealized profits from their stock portfolios in 1992.

While better off than many of its domestic peers in the mid-1990s, Nippon Life was not isolated from industry problems. Japan's economy continued to weaken, its banks were in financial disarray, interest rates were reaching record lows, and, for the first time since World War II, individual life insurance and pension policies were on the decline. In order to revitalize its financial markets, Japan began to lay the groundwork for deregulation in its finance and insurance sectors, believing that looser regulations and new competition would remedy the problems facing these industries. In 1996, life insurance companies were given the nod to enter competitor's markets.

In order to succeed in a liberalized environment, Nippon Life continued to make key investments and forge partnerships. In 1996, the company formed Nissay General Insurance Company, which signaled its commitment to securing a stronger foothold in the non-life insurance sectors. This subsidiary merged with Dowa Fire and Marine Insurance Company in 2001 to form Nissay Dowa General Insurance Company. In 1997, Nippon Life teamed up with U.S.-based Putnam Investments in order to gain experience in asset management. The company also looked to develop new products to shore up its bottom line. In 2001, Nippon Life began offering a cancer insurance line and Ikiru Chikara, a medical whole life insurance product.

During the early years of the new century, Japan's insurance industry continued to be plagued with problems and deregulation had yet to prove that it would bring about positive change. In 2000, four life insurance companies in Japan were declared insolvent, which cast doubt on the overall health of Japan's life insurance companies. By now, policy cancellations, low interest rates, and Japan's faltering stock market had forced many insurance providers to report dwindling profits. As such, Nippon Life set forth a new strategy designed to build consumer confidence. The firm pledged to strengthen its management platform, to continue to develop new products and services, and to expand its service network. Nippon Life also eyed deliberate diversification and expansion as crucial for future success. While an immediate turnaround in Japan's insurance industry was unexpected, Nippon Life stood well positioned to overcome the obstacles it would no doubt face in the years to come.

Principal Subsidiaries: Nissay Dowa General Insurance Company Ltd.; Nissay Asset Management Corporation; Nissay Information Technology Company Ltd.; Nippon Life Insurance Company of America; NLI Insurance Agency Inc. (United States); Nippon Life Insurance Company of the Philippines Inc.; NLI International Inc.; NLI International PLC (United Kingdom); NLI Properties East Inc. (United States); NLI Properties Central Inc. (United States); NLI Properties West Inc. (United States); NLI Properties UK Ltd.; PanAgora Asset Management Inc. (United States); DG PanAgora Asset Management GmbH (Germany).

Principal Competitors: Asahi Mutual Life Insurance Company; The Dia-Ichi Mutual Life Insurance Company; Sumitomo Life Insurance Company.

Further Reading:

  • Du Bois, Peter C., "Stock Woes Hobble Japanese Insurers," Barron's, April 20, 1992, p. 56.
  • Dvorak, Phred, "Results at Japanese Life Insurers Fuel Worries about the Industry," Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2000, p. A23.
  • Inoue, Hiroshi, "Japanese Insurers See Profits Fall Amid Weak Stocks, Low Rates," Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2003, p. C15.
  • "Insurance Sectors Crossing Barriers," Nikkei Weekly, September 3, 2001.
  • "Japanese Life Insurers Are Still Feeling Pain," National Underwriter Property & Casualty-Risk and Benefits Management, December 18, 2000, p. 38.
  • "A Losing Roll," Economist, May 26, 2001.
  • Prindl, Andreas R., Japanese Finance: A Guide to Banking in Japan, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1981.
  • Reischauer, Edwin O., Japan: the Story of a Nation, Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1971.
  • Quentin, Hardy, "Japan Insurers Face Problems on Holdings," Wall Street Journal, September 28, 1992, p. C1.
  • Yamamoto, Yuri, "Insurer Performance Mixed in Deregulation," Nikkei Weekly, June 16, 1997, p. 13.
  • ------, "Top Life Insurer Seeks Alliances, but No Mergers," Nikkei Weekly, August 10, 1998, p. 12.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.60. St. James Press, 2004.