THE two Young Turks of Japanese politics who broke up their nation's one-party rule in 1993 are openly vying to lead their fledgling opposition party.
Their square-off in an election later this month for head of the Shinshinto (New Japan Party) threatens to prevent the emergence of a two-party democracy. The prospect worries those seeking wholesale reform in Japan.
The party's high-stakes gamble of electing a new leader has brought back-room powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa out from the shadows as party secretary-general to wage the fight of his political life.
Mr. Ozawa, a time-honored master of the art of money politics and building factional alliances, is author of a best-selling book laying out a new future for Japan. He's often called a ''shadow shogun.''
His battle against one-time ally Tsutomu Hata, a former prime minister, comes as the party faces dwindling prospects against the two men's former party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has revived itself to dominate Japan's ruling coalition with the Socialists.
Shinshinto's low ratings in the polls (12 percent) and its loss of a recent local election that shamed Ozawa threatens to leave it neutered as a political force.
In particular, the party was dismayed and weakened by the Dec. 8 passage of the Religious Corporation Law. The law ostensibly aims to prevent anything like the sarin-producing Aum Shinrikyo religious group emerging again, but which has been drafted so as to strike at one of Shinshinto's chief political partners, the Komei Party, which is backed by the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization.
''The experience everywhere else and in Japan is that competing within the party in these kinds of elections is basically a bad idea,'' says Steven Reed, professor of modern government at Chuo University near Tokyo. ''If they continue ... like this, it will really hurt the party in the long run.''
The election square-off reflects the fact that the gradual progression toward a genuine two-party system represented by the emergence of Shinshinto is faltering.
Although there were no party rules that compel an election now - the young party has not yet even drawn up rules for such eventualities - Ozawa was forced to run for president Dec. 10 when incumbent Toshiki Kaifu announced he would not seek re-election, saying that he had ''decided to pass the baton on to Mr. Ozawa.''
''Fundamental distrust and apathy was already building, and Shinshinto was gradually splitting into two groups led by Ozawa and Hata, so these incidents only helped the feelings to emerge,'' says Shigenori Okazaki, political analyst for SBC-Warburg Securities Japan.
The Ozawa-Hata mutual antipathy dates back to the previous coalition government when Ozawa's behind-the-scenes maneuvering forced Mr. Hata to resign as prime minister in June 1994.
''Ozawa wanted to stay as secretary-general, but Hata made it clear he'd be running and if he won he'd pick someone else as secretary-general, so Ozawa's fighting for his political life. It's the only chance he has,'' Mr. Okazaki adds.
Nominations and voter registration close next Saturday, but no other candidates are expected to stand for the election. It will be by postal ballot and close on Dec. 26, with the result expected on Dec. 28.
With parliamentary support fairly evenly divided, the result is expected to be close. But thanks to a recently adopted rule allowing anyone over 18 years old to vote who has paid 1,000 yen ($10) to register - the party itself estimates around 500,000 people to vote who will not even have to join the party - it is unpredictable.
But it is not so much a question of who wins, but at what cost.
''If Ozawa wins, it doesn't spell a very happy future for Hata. This could open wounds that won't be healed,'' says John Neuffer, a political scientist at the Mitsui Marine Insurance Research Institute in Tokyo. He says Hata could either defect back to the LDP or remain but be the cause of so much animosity that Shinshinto would no longer be a credible force for the next election. That election could be called at any time between the passage of the budget in March and July 1997.