Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira emerged battered and bruised -- but still in office -- from the defeat his Liberal Democratic Party suffered in yesterday's parliamentary elections.

The stunning setback to his own promises and his party's hopes raised speculation that Ohira, with less than a year in office, might be forced to resign to accept responsibility for the unexpected reversal.

Ohira declined today to take that course. But he admitted the voters had passed a "severe judgment" and told reporters: "I face the judgment with humility and will keep it in mind in dealing with political affairs from now on."

When the final votes were counted this afternoon and the extent of Ohira's humiliation became clear, there were rumors that leaders of other factions within the Liberal Democrats might force a resignation. There is still a possibility of that in the next few days.

One former prime minister, Takeo Miki, implied that Ohira should quit and called the election "a failure" for the ruling party. But no other major party leader was so publicly blunt, and another former prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka, called on Ohira to stay in office.

Ohira was vulnerable because the idea of dissolving the lower house last month and staging the election was essentially his own. It was privately opposed by some of his colleagues, who thought he was staging the contest at this time merely to expand his own faction's strength and to increase his chances of winning reelection as party leader and prime minister next year.

Ohira had publicly set 271 seats as his target, insisting that such a comfortable margin was needed to pass effective legislation in the 511-seat chamber and end the messy practice of negotiating with opposition parties on every piece of major legislation.

But voters gave Ohira's party only 248 seats -- one less than three years ago when they were voting in the shadow of the Lockheed scandal that so damaged the conservative Liberal Democrats.

It left Ohira in the embarrassing position of having to entice 10 or 11 conservative independents into his camp to secure even a bare majority of 256 seats. It also meant that the ruling party will not control several key committees in the lower house and must continue to compromise to win passage of any significant legislation.

The big winner was the Japan Communist Party which more than doubled its strength in the chamber by winning at least 39 seats. The Communist victory did not appear to reflect any significant ideological shift and observers attributed it to a widespread desire to protest Ohira's suggested tax increases -- a proposal he gradually abandoned as its unpopularity became apparent.

The major opposition party, the Socialists, lost ground as expected, winding up with 107 seats for a net loss of 10. The other important opposition parties more or less held their own except for the Democratic Socialist Party which increased its power from 28 to 34 seats. It is an offshoot of the Socialist Party and represents the more conservative labor union members in Japan.

The results in terms of actual parliamentary strength left the Liberal Democratic Party no worse off than it was before. It clearly remains the dominant force in Japanese politics. Voters appeared to be expressing a desire for continued equilibrium in the lower house and a system in which no party has overwhelming power. But in terms of Ohira's self-proclaimed goals, it was a sharp reversal.

Analysts agreed tonight that the tax issue had exerted unusual pressure on the electorate. Ohira had championed introduction next year of a general consumption tax, a version of Europe's value-added tax, which would have most seriously affected low- and middle-income workers.

When his own party revolted -- about 70 percent of the Liberal Democrat candidates disavowed the tax plan -- Ohira made a series of confusing statements withdrawing his support for the plan and ending up promising that it would not be introduced next year. He said today that perhaps he should have presented the plan more carefully during the campaign.

But in a broader sense the election raised serious doubts about the conventional political wisdom currently in favor in Japan. The thesis asserts that a deep conservative tide is running and that after ruling for a decade with tenuous margins, the Liberal Democratic Party is on the verge of winning an election with so broad a majority that it could do pretty much what is wanted with the government in the 1980s.

That theory suffered considerable damage in the voting yesterday although some believed that it was only temporarily derailed by Ohira's foolish and untimely espousal of higher taxes for the poor and the lower middle-class.

Ohira personally must now face rising opposition from leaders of other factions principally from former prime minister Takeo Fukuda and from Yasuhiro Nakasone waiting in the wings to challenge him as party leader and prime minister next year.

But Tanaka, the disgraced Lockheed scandal figure and a close friend of Ohira, had his hopes of a political revival shattered when he won reelection as an independent with 27,000 fewer votes than he received last time.