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 term.

Introductory 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.

Other Groups

People and organizations outside the government are sometimes involved in decision-making.

  • 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 government's decisions.

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.

Discussion Questions about the Essay

  1. What is the Diet? How is it similar to the U.S. Congress? Different?
  2. Who heads the government in a parliamentary system like Japan's? In the U.S. system?
  3. Who elects the head of the government in each system?
  4. What is a "vote of no confidence"?
  5. 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 less freedom?
  6. Who drafts new laws in Japan? In the United States?
  7. Is debate in the Diet as important as debate in the Congress? Why?

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Role-playing Exercise


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?



Prime Minister

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 preferred position.

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 concerns.

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.

Union Leader

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.

Newspaper Editor

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.

Faction Leader

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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Directions for the Role-play

  1. 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 role-play exercise.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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?"
  4. 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.
  5. 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?"
  6. The prime minister should then be asked to make his decision public and to explain it to the class.
  7. 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?
  8. Use the questions for discussion to focus class discussion at the end of the exercise.

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Questions for Discussion Following the Role-play Exercise

  1. Who had the most direct means of influencing the prime minister?
  2. How did the prime minister's political opponents try to influence him?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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 States?

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Answers 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 opinion.
  • 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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© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University |