Japan's original life insurance agents were the widows of servicemen who died during World War II. In the 50 years since then, women have continued to dominate in selling life insurance. Unfortunately, this is not cause for a celebration of women's progress. Quite the opposite, says Eiko Sato, manager, sales promotion for The Prudential in Tokyo.

In Japan, to be a life insurance agent is to have a job- but not a profession, she says. Agents are often part-time workers and they are generally regarded with little respect. Agent turnover at the country's major insurers is high.

Faced with this reality, The Prudential decided to enter the Japanese market in the late 1970s. In an attempt to differentiate its agents from those employed by the country's 20 or so major traditional insurers, The Prudential made a big effort to hire men as agents. And instead of calling them agents, it called them life planners.

At first blush, it might seem like Prudential had taken a giant step backward instead of moving forward. But Sato explains. First, the company's all-male agent days are over now. That was just Prudential's way of putting the insurance-buying public on notice that its agents (or, rather, its life planners) were a new type of insurance professional. "Now the profession of life planner has been established," Sato says.

And second, Prudential is an "American-style" company; therefore, opportunities exist for women in the home office that don't exist at Japan's big, homegrown insurers. "There are several female managers [at Prudential]," says Sato, who counts herself among them. "It is unusual. In Japan, it is very difficult for women to get promoted, especially in the big Japanese companies. But Prudential is a big American company. More than one quarter of our managers are women."

Writing on the Wall As a businesswoman in Japan, Sato saw the writing on the wall long before she'd ever heard of Prudential. "I was working for a traditional Japanese company. I could not imagine any future there," she says. "There were no female managers, no mentors for me."

That was seven years ago. Then a direct mail piece from Prudential caught her eye. "I became interested in the company. It was very new, and I thought there would be many possibilities with a new company," she says. The only position available at the time was secretary to the president. Sato took it, with every intention of getting promoted. Sure enough, six months after she was hired, she moved up into the insurer's sales and marketing department.

"I worked there for three years, and during that time I learned about our agents, our agency offices, and our business procedures," says Sato, who was transferred into her current position in 1993. "As manager of sales promotion, I am responsible for planning and promoting sales contests and recognition of qualifiers." It's a position she calls "interesting and challenging," but she's still looking up the corporate ladder. "I'm not satisfied," she says. "I still have dreams."

Seeing the Guest's Side Speaking from her Tokyo office, Sato handles herinterview with humor and openness, and though she worries about expressing herself in English, her facility with the language-even some of its colloquialisms-is impressive.

She's learned a lot about conference planning from her American counterparts at Prudential, especially from planning veteran Joanne Gandolfo, director of conference and travel for the Individual Insurance Group of Prudential.

"Joanne taught me to remember that I am also one of the participants, not just staff," Sato says. "That way I can see things from the guest's side, which is very important for [the planning of] the next conference."

A Chance to Network Last November, Sato attended her first Insurance Conference Planners Association (ICPA) annual meeting. Conveniently for her, it was held in Hawaii, a destination that is closer to Tokyo than it is to the East Coast of the United States. It also gave her a chance to visit the Hilton Waikoloa on the Big Island, the property Sato had booked for her company's 1996 President's Trophy conference.

What most impressed Sato about the ICPA meeting was seeing so many meeting planners in one place and having the opportunity to learn from them. "Insurance conventions and conferences are not so popular in Japan. We don't have any such organization."

Not only are insurance conference planners a rarity in Japan, but holding a conference there is also rare-even for the Tokyo-based operation of The Pru. "It's difficult because Japanese hotels do not have large meeting spaces that can hold a banquet of more than 1,000 people" Sato explains. "And everything is very expensive in Japan."

So even if Sato has to fly her qualifiers to Europe or to Hawaii, she still comes out ahead because of what she saves on the meeting's other expenses. (During Sato's tenure, the company's major incentive meetings have been held in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hawaii.) "And it is also very attractive for our life planners if we hold a conference in a foreign country.

"Our convention was introduced from Prudential in America," she adds. Conference managers will recognize the typical itinerary: arrival and welcome reception on day one, morning business sessions on days two through four, final night cocktail reception and banquet on day four, and departure on day five.

While Sato prefers negotiating with American hotels because she likes their direct style, she acknowledges that Japanese hotels have their good points as well. "The biggest difference between American hotels and Japanese hotels is that everything to be provided [in an American hotel] is stated clearly in the contract. [Therefore,] we never expect too much." By contrast, in Japan, hoteliers sometimes are so anxious to please the customer they might make promises that the hotel cannot deliver.

What kind of negotiator is Sato? "The American [style] is mostly my style," she says.

It's not surprising, as Sato is direct and straightforward when in conversation with a new acquaintance-even in her second language. Nor is it surprising that, when asked what she dreamed as a girl that she might grow up to be, Sato shoots back, "A doctor! I have always admired Doctor [Albert] Schweitzer."

And as a 37-year-old single woman, she isn't ruling out any of her dreams for the future. "Well," she says, "there is always the possibility."