Open warfare has broken out between Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and some leading members of his party with calls growing for him to resign to take the blame for Japan's economic crisis.

The battle, confined until now to internal party sniping, flared into the open this week when 20 members of Hashimoto's Liberal Democratic Party called for him to step down.Hashimoto's position has been precarious for months as domestic and foreign criticism poured down on his efforts to stop Japan going into a recession.

But absent a clear successor, an opposition in disarray and an Upper House election looming in July, most analysts believed the prime minister was safe until after the poll.

That no longer appears a certainty.

A schism in the party over how to solve the economic crisis grows more visible each day, leading to sometimes laughable exchanges between the two warring sides.

Political insiders say in one incident early this week, Hashimoto aides called in a senior LDP politician to complain that he should look less "glum" when he talked to the press about the state of the economy.

The politician retorted that he just naturally looked "glum" and he wasn't going change his face for the good of the party.

The latest revolt came on Wednesday night at a meeting of LDP dissenters, including former Construction Minister Shizuka Kamei, former International Trade and Industry Minister Eiichi Nakao and former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano.

The group of 20, in calling for Hashimoto's resignation, said the LDP could not win the Upper House election unless the party went into the campaign under a new leader who would take drastic measures to stimulate the stricken economy.

Authoritative sources said some of the dissenters suggested that Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi, a powerful LDP faction leader and regularly talked about as a possible Hashimoto successor, should take over the prime ministership.

The Asahi Evening News on Thursday came up with another name, former LDP president Yohei Kono, who Hashimoto replaced three years ago.

The newspaper said Hashimoto supporters who had helped him to unseat Kono were now reversing course and wanted Kono, also a former foreign minister, to take the helm.

Political analysts said the infighting would heat up as the election approached, ironically because if the LDP won against a weak opposition it would ensure Hashimoto retained his post no matter what happened to the economy.