TOKYO -- A complex, two-week struggle for the leadership of Japan appeared at an end yesterday, with support coalescing for the ultimate inside candidate, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tsutomu Hata.
Unless some last-minute hitch arises, the interregnum that began April 8 when Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa announced his resignation amid scandal and government gridlock should end tomorrow with a government made up almost entirely of the current cast, except for the prime minister.
"It was a good thing he left. It was clear he couldn't do any more," said a coalition adviser. "But Hata is going to have a hell of a time."
Along with the old government come the old problems. Ideological differences on crucial issues among the eight coalition partners remain, aggravated by the inherent weakness in a parliamentary structure with no strong, decisive core. As a result, Japan's efforts to change internally may continue to produce only incremental movement.
Among the crucial issues left unresolved is the trade dispute with the United States.
And discussions yesterday on how to cope with rising tensions in Korea produced only a tepid acknowledgment that plans must be made to cope with a possible "emergency situation."
The talks were unable to produce a consensus on tax policy, the final hurdle the Hosokawa administration was unable to overcome. But there was a sense among some coalition members that a new administration could achieve consensus on the overdue 1994 budget.
Japan's eight months under Mr. Hosokawa brought unprecedented steps to open up the electoral system and the rice market, but political and economic realities made the reform efforts futile.
Up to the time of Mr. Hosokawa's resignation, his coalition never seemed to jell enough to truly govern. But it was the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, not the coalition, that soon tottered on the brink of extinction, as one defector after another left the vast political machine that had led Japan for 38 years until last summer.
"If there is confusion abroad over the political chicanery, it is hardly surprising," said Roger Buckley, a professor at International Christian University in Tokyo. "The observation is shared by people here."
The largest blow of all appeared imminent early this week, with the impending defection of Michio Watanabe, an LDP leader who, at age 70, seemed desperate to make a last effort to obtain the top office that had narrowly eluded him several times before.
Mr. Watanabe abandoned yesterday any attempt to leave his party -- a result, a coalition adviser said, of his inability to carry with him enough supporters to make any difference in the complicated mathematics of Japanese parliamentary politics.
The coalition, meanwhile, agreed to abandon or temporarily ignore differences and to rally behind Mr. Hata.
A former minister of agriculture and of finance, Mr. Hata brings a long resume to the job -- and one particularly infamous comment -- that Western beef was unsuitable for Japanese intestines.
Political cohorts describe Mr. Hata as unusually amiable and almost impossible to dislike -- a vital quality given the unstable, at times acrimonious, groups sharing power in Japan.
Long-term political observers took modest solace from the fact that stability has been achieved and may be maintained for a little while.
"Any progress will be limited," predicted Mr. Buckley, "but they will stay together until the next election."
The next election is thought to be several months to a year away.