AS Japan drifted through most of this week without a government it seemed to many that the ways of Rome had come to Tokyo. Italy in its post-war political prime probably still holds the record for days without a cabinet, but otherwise Japan looks as if it is catching up fast. In both countries, money politics has produced pervasive corruption. Rampant opportunism makes most political loyalties appear ephemeral. Politicians spend an inordinate amount of time in smoke-filled back rooms amid a plethora of political parties, prime ministers come and prime ministers go. Former Japanese prime minister Sousuke Uno held office for less than three months. New Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata looks likely to break that record. In fact, the Italian-Japanese parallel is relevant in a more important way. Both nations are seeking political reform through wide-ranging changes in their electoral system. Italy has already instituted its electoral changes but Silvio Berlusconi faces the problem encountered last year by outgoing Japanese prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa - that of welding together a basically incompatible coalition. By contrast, Mr Hata stands at a crossroads as he becomes Japan's 51st prime minister. The old order, that of permanent rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and permanent opposition by the Socialists, could re-assert itself. The new order of two competing, basically conservative, political parties, envisaged most clearly by Mr Hata's close colleague, the chief coalition strategist Ichiro Ozawa, could gather momentum. These two competing trends have been hard at work since Mr Hosokawa announced his intention to resign three weeks ago. Paradoxically, had former deputy prime minister Michio Watanabe been inducted into the prime ministership this week, instead of Mr Hata, it would have been a clearer sign that the new order was gaining the upper hand. The reformist analysis starts from the premise that the ever-lengthening list of scandals in Japan basically arises from politicians being, too often, sleeping partners in the ''iron triangle''. This is the cosy often corrupt relationship between business, bureaucrats and politicians which once energised Japan's post-war development but which now seems to stultify it. The LDP, with little fear of defeat, just went through the motions of governing while the Socialists, far removed from reality on many issues, went through the motions of opposing. Mr Ozawa is not alone in wanting to end all that, but the means chosen were deceptively simple. First, reform of the electoral system would institute single-member constituencies and first-past-the-post voting. Second, with that accomplished, politicians would inevitably have to merge into a few, preferably two, political parties. Third, two-party competition would result in Japan becoming ''a more normal nation'', in Mr Ozawa's phrase, in which politicians argue over policies and then impose those policies on the bureaucrats. The broad outlines of this scheme were not unique to Mr Ozawa. They were first drawn up as long ago as 1989 under the aegis of the LDP. Since then three prime ministers - Noburo Takeshita, Toshiki Kaifu and Kiichi Miyazawa - were all unable to insist that LDP governments initiate the agreed reform process. Mr Ozawa was LDP secretary-general during this period, an experience which led him to conclude that the LDP was unreformable. So in mid-1993 he, together with Mr Hata, led the breakaway Shinseito (Japan Renewal Party), which voted no confidence in Mr Miyazawa. Together with Mr Hosokawa's Japan New Party and older opposition parties such as Komeito (Clean Government Party) they did sufficiently well at the ensuing general election to institute a new ruling coalition. Once the coalition was formed they quickly discovered that the key leftist faction of the Socialists was as resistant to change as the LDP. This was brilliantly illustrated earlier this year when the leftists voted down a reform bill that would have been more advantageous to them than the one eventually passed. Once the Reform Bill was passed the leftist Socialists resisted Mr Ozawa on another crucial point. While the new single-seat constituency boundaries were being drawn, Mr Ozawa wanted to push ahead to integrate the coalition parties into a single cohesive group. The leftists would have none of it. They, and the Sakigake (New Pioneer Party), wanted to retain their separate identity within a multi-party system. For a tough-minded pragmatist such as Mr Ozawa, this Socialist-Sakigake preference was the equivalent of political suicide. So when Mr Hosokawa resigned, no time was lost seeking a merger. In a little-noticed move Mr Hosokawa announced that his JNP would henceforth be part of a wider grouping called ''Reform''. The idea attracted little attention. All eyes were on Mr Watanabe. If he could bring his LDP faction of more than 60 members across to the coalition, the Socialists would be dispensable. A progressive yet conservative party led by Mr Hata and Mr Watanabe would have a majority without them. Mr Watanabe failed to move decisively. As he dilly-dallied, it became plain that at best only 20 MPs would follow his lead. So he stayed in the LDP. Foiled in one direction, Mr Ozawa then tried another tack. Talks were set in motion for a common coalition platform. Such policy discussion offered the prospect of detaching the moderate Socialists (who could compromise with Mr Ozawa's views) from the leftists (who could never accommodate him). When the platform was agreed on April 23, it seemed that Mr Ozawa was winning. The Socialists had agreed to tenuous compromises in their past attitudes towards North Korea, China, the Japanese constitution and the armed forces. But at that point the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) reintroduced the single-party idea originally floated by Mr Hosokawa. Under the all-embracing title of Kaishin (Reformation and Innovation) this time the one-party concept took off. The Socialists, faced with the risk of losing their identity in Kaishin, preferred their instinct for seppuku after all, and withdrew from the coalition altogether. But this dubious last hurrah leaves them with the invidious choice of either supporting the coalition until the next single-seat election, or making even greater compromises in coalition with the LDP in an effort to retain the past role as permanent opposition. LDP leader Yohei Kono still has a small lead over Kaishin in the House of Representatives, 207 to 188 at last count. The temptation to go for a coalition with the Socialists in order to get one last election under the old order of multi-member constituencies must be intense. But if Mr Kono then proceeds to bring down the Hata cabinet, he cannot be sure how many LDP members will be persuaded by the wily Mr Ozawa to abandon ship. Reform towards a two-party system, towards policy-oriented politicians, and even towards a little openness in the smoke-filled back rooms, is taking place. But the LDP and the Socialists may be unable to resist the temptation to make one last great leap backwards.