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Japan's Small, Smoke Filled Room

One after the other, the limousines pulled up to the exclusive Takemoto restaurant, a favorite nightlife haunt of Japan's power elite in Tokyo's Akasaka district. Out stepped four of the mightiest leaders in Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Sharing a private tatami-mat room on Aug. 16 were Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and former LDP General Secretary Ichiro Ozawa, the two top rivals for future control of the party's dominant Takeshita faction, and thus for the office of Prime Minister. Joining them were two even more senior members of the influential faction.

The gathering was prompted by the death the previous day of former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, who had been leader of LDP's second-largest faction. Abe was the consensus pick to succeed Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, whose term ends in October. With Abe now gone, the succession was suddenly up for grabs. Whom should former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita's faction anoint as the next Prime Minister? Takeshita and these four men had the power to decide.