The torturous path of Japanese politics took another subtle twist in Sunday's election. The voters nurse chronic floating dissatisfaction with the aging, conservative ruling party, yet they believe running the country is too serious a business to be left to the splintered and feuding parties of the opposition.

So when ballot-counting finished in the election for half of the upper house early today, the voters had sent a complicated message via the ballot-box. They returned the ruling Liberal Democratic Party with a reduced majority while punishing the left-leaning Socialists of the principal opposition party.

Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda was exceedingly happy with the results. Tomomi Narita was badly shaken and is to offer his resignation as chairman of the Japan Socialist Party. The popular interpretation of the election's outcome is that the Japanese people are simultaneously seeking stablity and change. Confusing to outsiders perhaps, but it fits perfectly into the Japanese concepts of national harmony and rule by consensus.

Although materialism is an acquired taste here, the Japanese value the televisions, cars, clothes and other accoutrements of the good life. More seriously, they value too highly the vast improvement in living standards achieved under the capitalist system and conservative government to risk a sudden change in the winning formula.

The upper house - the House of Councillors - plays a secondary role in the Japanese Parliament and an upper house election does not normally generate much political heat. This election aroused more than customary interest because the press and politicians presented it as a watershed poll that could flip Japan into the uncertain world of coalition politics.

The Liberal Democrats went into the election with a majority of seven and emerged with a slender edge of four in the 252-seat upper house. When the chips were down, the party with the proven record and the confidence of big business and the powerful civil service proved a safer choice despite its many drawbacks.

The voters shied away from the two parties with radical images. The Japan Socialist Party has been split for many years between left and right wings. Since its right-wing leader, the late Saburo Eda quit the party last year. The Marxist-Leninist group has been gaining power. The electorate's distaste was plain: the party lost five seats, while Eda's son, running as an alternative Socialist candidate drew 1.4 million votes - second highest in the election.

The Communists also suffered a spectacular defeat. Despite its flexible Eurocommunism philosophies, the Japan Communist Party lost four of its 20 seats. Its share of the popular vote slid below the usual 10 per cent to 8.4. Chairman Kenji Miyamoto won his personal campaign but will now face increased criticism within his party.

In a hard-fought campaign that favored the well-organized parties able to mobilize their voters, the Komelto - Clean Government Party - which is the political arm of the Soka Gakkai militant Buddhist sect, picked up four seats. The party is anti-Communist and fundamentally conservative.

As further evidence of a trend toward moderate, middle-of-the-road parties, the Democratic Socialists also gained an extra seat. Both parties are fundamentally conservative - closer to the Liberal Democrats than to the rest of the parliamentary opposition. Their continuing feud with the Communist divides the opposition parties and accounts for a common belief that the progressive parties are incapable of forming a coalition government.

The Communists were handicapped because recent acrimonious fishing rights negotiations with the Soviet Union revived anti-Communist sentiments.

Across the political spectrum, the splinter conservatives of the New Liberal Club suffered a sharp setback. The party's grass roots organization didn't perform as well as its public relations department. The party had too much ink, too few votes and had to be content with three seats instead of their minimum expectations of six.

Even so, they did better than three other new minor parties, which collected only two seats between them.

All told, it was evident that the voters do not want radical departures from the successful Liberal Democratic rule. There is even a question whether they want changes at all. Faced with international difficulties over protectionism, energy and food, many voters went for the known quantity and helped the Liberal Democrats half a 15-year decline in their share of the popular vote.

A college lecturer who invariably supported prgressive candidates in the past changed her vote on Sunday: "you have to realize they have good experienced people in the LDP," she said. "And I don't know if we can trust the opposition."