|Role-playing Exercise: Decision-making in
the Japanese Government
To the Teacher: This unit focuses on the issue
of taxation, an important issue to citizens in any society, to demonstrate
the interaction between the prime minister, the political parties,
interest groups, and the bureaucracy in Japan's parliamentary system.
An introductory reading is followed by a role-play exercise in which
students take on the roles of different actors in the Japanese political
system — civil servants, Dietmen, business executives — attempting
to resolve whether to raise or to cut taxes.
The role-play uses a real issue to illustrate the dynamics of decision-making
in Japan. The introductory reading emphasizes the contrasts between
the U.S. president and Congress and the Japanese prime minister and
Diet. The main point to be illustrated in the role-play is the greater
freedom of the Japanese prime minister to "decide" — he
does not need the Diet's cooperation in the same way that the U.S.
president needs Congress's. Equally important is the counter to this
greater freedom: the prime minister must pay a political price for
any unpopular decision and is more vulnerable than a president who
is elected by direct vote and who cannot be removed during his four-year
Essay: How Decisions are Made
The Prime Minister and the Parliament (Diet)
The head of the Japanese government is called the prime minister. He
is elected by Japan's parliament, the Diet, and is a leading member of
a political party. The prime minister appoints a cabinet of politicians
from his own or allied political parties, the members of which head the
different sectors of the government, called ministries or agencies. These
ministries and agencies are manned by professional bureaucrats who usually
spend their entire career in one ministry, making them very knowledge
able, experienced, and powerful.
People and organizations outside the government are sometimes involved
- Specialists with specific knowledge or experience may advise a ministry
in writing legislation.
- Organized interest groups that have an interest in a given
decision — including business groups, unions, occupational groups
(such as doctors or engineers), farm cooperatives, and consumer organizations
— often advise or pressure the government.
- Political leaders who oppose the prime minister and his administration
may also pressure the prime minister and his cabinet ministers to make
a particular decision. This includes both political leaders who are in
opposition political parties and leaders of other factions within the
prime minister's own party.
- Mass media — newspapers, radio and television stations
— by expressing (or shaping) public opinion, can influence the
The American President and Congress vs. the Japanese Prime Minister
and the Diet
In the American system, the president and Congress are separate and
independent, and the president must persuade Congress to vote his proposals
into law. In a parliamentary system such as Japan's, the legislature
places fewer restrictions on the prime minister and his cabinet's decision-making
day to day. Nevertheless, the prime minister must be careful not to lose
political support in the Diet, because in a parliamentary system, a majority
in the Diet can force a complete change in the government at any time
by casting a "vote of no confidence." This means that a majority
of the Diet has lost confidence in the prime minister's ability to govern
the country successfully. When such a vote occurs, the law requires the
prime minister to either resign or to call for new elections.
Drafting New Laws
In the United States, individual representatives in Congress propose
much new legislation. Drafts of proposed law (bills) are debated and
voted on in committees and in the whole Congress, just as is the legislation
proposed by the president and his administration. In Japan, the prime
minister proposes almost all legislation; it is usually drawn up by career
government bureaucrats. Therefore, those who want the government to pass
a particular law usually go to one of the ministries, or to a politician
belonging to the coalition supporting the prime minister, rather than
to individual members of the Diet. The Diet has a complicated committee
structure, not unlike that of the Congress. However, during the long
years of uninterrupted control of government by the Liberal Democratic
Party (LDP), most real policy decisions were made in separate LDP committee
meetings, rather than the Diet committee meetings which members of all
parties may attend.
Debate in the Diet
Debate in the Diet is aimed mostly at the public. Members of the prime
minister's party or coalition almost always support his proposals, because
failure to do so would indicate his weakness in the Diet and lead to
new government leadership or a new election. Debate in the Diet is important,
however, because it provides a public platform for critics of the administration's
proposals, and if the government and the LDP feel that opposition is
very strong, they may feel pressured not to use their Diet majority to
pass the proposal.
Questions about the Essay
- What is the Diet? How is it similar to the U.S. Congress? Different?
- Who heads the government in a parliamentary system like Japan's? In
the U.S. system?
- Who elects the head of the government in each system?
- What is a "vote of no confidence"?
- In what ways does the head of the Japanese government have more freedom
to make decisions than the U.S. president? In what ways does he have
- Who drafts new laws in Japan? In the United States?
- Is debate in the Diet as important as debate in the Congress? Why?
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Japan is in a period of slow economic growth. Income tax rates are
very high, but because of the weak economy, tax revenues are not
enough to cover government spending. There is, however, pressure
for tax cuts to increase spending by consumers and businesses. The
prime minister has avoided taking a position on this difficult and
politically dangerous problem, but pressure for a decision is building
both publicly and in the mass media and the Diet, and informally
from his political allies and cabinet members. Should the government
raise or lower taxes?
DEBATERS AND THEIR POSITIONS:
As leader of the majority party in the Diet and head of the administration
you must make the final decision on such an important issue. Should
you lower taxes (popular in the short run) or raise taxes (which
may avoid even bigger problems in the future)? The other decision-makers
will try to influence your decision, but you must decide on the
basis of what is good, not just for Japan, but also for your political
party and your own political future. Keep in mind the relative
importance of all those who try to persuade you to adopt their
Minister of Finance
You are the leader of a powerful faction (group of politicians)
in the majority party and an ally of the prime minister. Your ministry's
professional finance specialists tell you that a tax increase is
essential. Budget cuts are becoming increasingly difficult to make,
and budget deficits continue to grow. The government must spend
more and more of each year's budget just on interest on its previous
borrowing. To stop the cycle of budget deficits, government borrowing,
and larger interest payments, it is essential to raise taxes now.
You must convince the prime minister that this politically unpopular
move is essential to avoid even greater and more dangerous financial
problems in the future. In order to convince him, you must think
up a way that he can convince the public and other politicians
that there are actually positive aspects to a tax hike.
Minister of Foreign Affairs
One of your primary responsibilities is to maintain good relations
with the United States and Europe, Japan's two most important markets
for its industrial products. However, relations are becoming tense
because of Japan's massive exports of cars, electronic equipment,
and other industrial goods and its much lower imports of such items.
Europe wants to restrict Japanese exports, but the Americans support
free trade and want Japan to increase its imports instead. A tax
cut would increase spending by Japanese consumers and therefore
stimulate them to buy more imported products, so you must persuade
the prime minister to cut taxes in order to improve Japan's foreign
relations. You also need to explain to the prime minister why he
should give more consideration to foreign relations than to domestic
President of the Keidanren
The Keidanren is an organization that includes almost all big
businesses, or companies, in Japan. These companies provide a large
portion of the ruling party's campaign funds, and you know that
the prime minister will listen carefully to your opinion. You would
like to see a tax reduction that would increase consumer spending
and bring greater profits to the companies in the Keidanren, but
you are worried about the already large national deficit. Therefore,
you feel that a tax cut should be matched by a big cut in government
spending. You would like to see many government programs reduced
or eliminated and many government-run activities returned to the
private sector. You would also like to see the government restrict
pay increases for public employees. Such increases raise the cost
of government and encourage workers in private companies to ask
for higher wages. You must explain to the prime minister why he
should give greater consideration to the needs of big business
than to those of other groups, such as labor, consumers, etc.
President of the Japan Chamber of Commerce (JCC, Nisshô)
The JCC is the main organization of small and medium-sized businesses in Japan.
The recent slow economic growth has increased the number of bankruptcies of small
businesses. Profits have been severely reduced, and an immediate tax cut might
increase business and allow many small businesses to continue. In pressuring
the prime minister for a big tax cut, you can remind him that Japan's small businesses
provide many votes for the Liberal Democratic party.
You are the head of the major private sector union federation. Because economic
growth has been slow and business has been poor, wage increases are not keeping
up with inflation, and government services are being reduced. To maintain union
members' standard of living, you support a big tax reduction because your members
support the opposition parties, you can only pressure the prime minister indirectly
by asking the opposition parties to debate the issue in the legislature. You
can also use the mass media to argue that a tax cut would be good for Japan:
by increasing consumer spending, it would boost the slowly growing economy.
Opposition Party Leader
Japanese taxes are very high, and you strongly support the popular issue of
a tax reduction. Moreover, your main support is from the unions, which are pressuring
the government for tax reductions. You cannot stop the prime minister in the
Diet because he controls the majority party, but you can use Diet debates to
criticize any attempt to raise taxes and even use delaying tactics to slow down
passage of other legislation important to the government if your wishes are ignored.
Finally, you can threaten a boycott of any vote on tax increases, embarrassing
the prime minister by making him seem like a dictator.
You are often critical of the government and the ruling party. You argue that
the deficit must be reduced by making government more efficient; however, you
believe that welfare payments and government services should not be reduced during
a period of economic hardship. You support a tax reduction as an important way
to boost the economy.
You are the leader of a faction (group of politicians) within the ruling party
that does not support the prime minister. You must support his legislation in
the Diet to maintain party unity, which is essential to your own chances of becoming
prime minister one day. But any mistake and sharp drop in popularity of the prime
minister would be to your advantage if this threatened his control of the party
without threatening the party's control of the Diet. Therefore, you watch the
prime minister's actions carefully and prepare your own position in order to
benefit politically, if possible. If the prime minister decides on a tax cut,
you may criticize him for increasing Japan's debts for short-term political benefits;
if, however, he chooses a tax increase, you may argue that this will only hurt
an already weak economy and the people's standard of living. If he avoids a decision,
you can call him indecisive.
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for the Role-play
- Assign the above introductory essay, "How Decisions are Made," to
all students prior to the role-play. (An optional discussion comparing
the U.S. and Japanese government could be conducted after students
have done the reading. This would offer further preparation for the
- Assign the roles to nine individual students or nine teams. Give them
the pages that describe the situation and the actors' positions, and
ask them to study their positions prior to the class session and to be
prepared to present their positions.
- At the beginning of the exercise, read out the "situation" as
it appears and then pose the question: "Should the prime minister
decide to raise or lower taxes?"
- Class members not playing roles should take notes on each presentation,
listing the arguments of each actor in four columns: Political Arguments,
Pro and Con, and Economic Arguments, Pro and Con.
- Following the presentations by all actors, the class should consider
the arguments and vote "yes" or "no" by signed paper
ballot on the question "Should the prime minister decide to raise
or lower taxes?"
- The prime minister should then be asked to make his decision public and
to explain it to the class.
- The class vote should be tallied and announced to see whether a majority
of the students have taken the same position as the prime minister.
Students who have not taken the same position as the prime minister
should be asked to explain their reasons. If students take the same
position as the prime minister but for different reasons than the prime
minister stated, they should also explain their reasons. Students should
justify their decisions in light of what they know about the Japanese
political system from the introductory reading. Remind students to
base their decisions on the economic and political arguments presented
by the various actors. What should the prime minister do if he wants
to remain in power?
- Use the questions for discussion to focus class discussion at the end
of the exercise.
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for Discussion Following the Role-play Exercise
- Who had the most direct means of influencing the prime minister?
- How did the prime minister's political opponents try to influence him?
- If the decision was for a tax cut, what would the political consequences
be if the economy continued its slow growth, government interest payments
increased rapidly, and Japan was faced with a much bigger budget deficit?
- If the decision was for a tax increase, what would the political consequences
be if the economy continued its slow growth and the standard of living
dropped even further?
- In Japan, groups try to pressure the prime minister and his cabinet when
they want to influence a decision. Whom do they pressure in the United
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to the Discussion Questions
- Answer 1: His political supporters — cabinet and businessmen.
- Answer 2: They argued that their position was best for Japan in general
and tried to use the mass media and the Diet debates to shape public
- Answer 3: The prime minister would be criticized for trying to be "popular" and
not showing "leadership" and might have to take an unpopular
action in raising taxes significantly.
- Answer 4: The prime minister would be criticized for not helping
to boost the economy and foreign governments might restrict Japanese
exports to retaliate against low Japanese imports.
- Answer 5: They usually try to pressure Congress, because the president
cannot pass legislation, he can only propose or veto it. Members of
Congress are free to vote as they wish without concern for bringing
on a change of government or new elections.
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