March 1, 2024

After the Disasters in Japan, a Stoic Response From Aflac

It began with the decorum that managers say hundreds of telephone agents here in this Tokyo suburb used when talking to customers on March 11, even from under their desks as the call center was shaking violently. With headsets still in place, they explained as coolly as possible that an earthquake was under way — something obvious to people in eastern Japan, but unknowable to others in western Japan.

“The operators were able to act professionally, given the situation,” Tomoyo Mikazuki, a call center manager, recently remembered.

Aflac Japan has also suspended television advertising featuring its mascot duck, and quickly took out newspaper ads offering messages of condolences. Customers affected by the natural disaster were automatically given a six-month grace period to pay the premiums on the supplemental health and life insurance policies in which the company specializes. Aflac Japan and many of its employees, meanwhile, have donated millions of dollars to relief efforts.

The steps taken by Aflac are comparable to what many other Japanese companies have done: falling in line with the national calls for self-restraint, humility and sacrifice, while gradually putting interrupted or suspended operations back in place.

Although Aflac’s corporate headquarters is in Columbus, Ga., about 70 percent of the company’s $20.7 billion in revenue last year came from Japan. And it leads its segment of the Japanese insurance market, with nearly 21 million policies, sold by more than 19,000 agencies that are supported by about 4,000 Aflac employees working from 82 Aflac-owned offices around Japan.

“A lot of customers don’t think of us as American,” said Charles D. Lake, chairman of Aflac Japan. “We’re here.”

Because Aflac is not a property insurer like Chartis, Tokio Marine or others still trying to gauge the size of claims from the quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that the Japanese government will ultimately help cover, Aflac’s business has been only minimally affected by the calamity.

Fewer than 5 percent of Aflac’s policies are in the Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures most affected by the disaster, and the company has not had to revise its earnings projections to account for expected claims. (One agent died, and another remains missing, of more than 300 Aflac agents in the coastal areas of the affected prefectures.)

Mainly, Aflac is similar to many types of big Japanese companies with a national retail reach, which are each gradually making their way back from the various disruptions, including rolling power blackouts, that have affected segments of their daily operations.

Things were far worse back on the afternoon of Friday, March 11, when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake caused the skyscraper in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo that houses the company’s corporate office to sway like a reed in the wind. Elevators were stopped, which meant long walks for employees to the street from their offices.

Because the trains had stopped running, too, workers at headquarters had to make their way home that night by their own devices, including some who paid hundreds of dollars to buy new bicycles. The company’s contingency plan included a phone tree that assigned workers to call co-workers, but with cellphone service cut, the plan was scrapped.

Mr. Lake was 200 miles west, in Niigata, on a business trip, and unable to return to Tokyo for two days. So Tohru Tonoike, the president, and Hiroshi Yamauchi, senior vice president of corporate planning, spent the night in the Tokyo office.

They and other managers immediately started to confirm the whereabouts of the company’s employees and sales agents. They learned that only two of Aflac’s offices in Sendai — the biggest city in the quake zone — were damaged.

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