TOKYO -- It was unprecedented in a century of Japanese parliamentary politics: The prime minister had to answer a direct question from the opposition -- without the help of bureaucrats.

Opening the session, lawmaker Yukio Hatoyama asked not about the economy or foreign policy, but "What did you have for breakfast?"Thus began Japan's experiment with British-style "question time," aimed at loosening bureaucrats' grip on power and -- hopefully -- unleashing freewheeling debates that will transform lawmakers into polished orators and policy experts.

In Britain, question time usually means a take-no-prisoners policy session, during which sparks fly so high they have become a C-SPAN cable TV favorite in the United States.

In Japan, the reality has been a bit different.

Hatoyama, the leader of the Democratic Party, opened the first session on Nov. 10 in Japanese style -- with an inside joke and a metaphor.

Poking fun at a political analyst's comparison last year of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's public appeal to "cold pizza," Hatoyama asked the premier what he had for breakfast -- warm or cold pizza.

He then described Obuchi's new and powerful three-party governing coalition as a pizza that "has become too large, with too many toppings."

The session, limited to 40 minutes, later strayed into more substantial issues like the country's ambitious nuclear power policy. But the overall impression was that of an empty, amateurish debate.

"I couldn't tell if Obuchi was even listening to the questions or if he knew what he was talking about," said Kimiko Makabe, 39, a part-time office worker in Tokyo. "He doesn't seem to have any opinions -- but I wonder if any of the other politicians have opinions either."