Japan's shadow shogun nurses grievance in silence: Ichiro Ozawa (right) is the man behind the government, but he's not talking to journalists. Terry McCarthy reports from Tokyo

WHO RUNS Japan? For centuries foreigners have puzzled over the opaque network of power relations that snake through Japanese society, where nothing is quite as it seems and no one is quite what they pretend to be. Emperors have been puppets of military shoguns, who in turn have been manipulated by other, more obscure power-brokers: shadow shoguns. Like a hall of mirrors, the illusions never end.

Generally, the Japanese have been happy enough with this gulf between appearance and reality: it preserves a pleasing element of flexibility in the political system, while avoiding the awkwardness of personal accountability and the ultimate danger of a public loss of face.

Recently, however, this tolerance has been stretched to the limit in the political world, as journalists have been denied all access to the man who is regarded as the most powerful shadow-shogun in the country: Ichiro Ozawa. The drama being played out between Mr Ozawa and the Japanese media has again put Japan's brand of democracy in the spotlight.

Mr Ozawa, 51, is the man who masterminded the defection of 44 members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last June to end that party's 38- year monopoly on government. He set up the Shinseito, or Japan Renewal Party, and managed to cobble together a coalition of Socialists and non-LDP conservatives, which now rules the country.

He has immense power throughout the political and bureaucratic world, even though he has no official post in the government. He is the man who went to Europe in October to negotiate secretly the compromise agreement under which Japan will open its rice market in line with the Gatt trade liberalisation talks, with a six-year delay. The government is expected to announce this deal formally on Tuesday. As the Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, polishes his public image in high-profile meetings with foreign leaders, Mr Ozawa is quietly pulling all the political strings in the background.

But since the beginning of last month, Mr Ozawa has discontinued his weekly press conferences and refused to answer any questions from journalists. Angered by articles in two newspapers about his behind-the-scenes negotiations over the rice issue, he said bluntly: 'Press conferences are my service to you, not my duty.'

Japanese political journalists normally enjoy cosy relationships with politicians they report on, regularly playing golf and dining together. In exchange they rarely write anything that could be damaging to the politician's career. But Mr Ozawa has refused to play that game.

Mr Ozawa, who entered parliament at the age of 27, chose as his first mentor Kakuei Tanaka, the immensely powerful former prime minister arrested in the Lockheed scandal in 1976. Mr Tanaka taught him the importance of power- broking and backroom politics. He has only served briefly in the cabinet, as home affairs minister in 1985-86. Instead he has concentrated on building his power-base within the party-political network. Mr Ozawa's determination and ruthlessness earned him the nickname 'Steel Arm'.

Political correspondents have compiled a petition of signatures asking Mr Ozawa to reinstate his press conferences. With the rice issue, the debate over political reform and the need for government action to stimulate the economy commanding the headlines, editors are furious they cannot get any feedback from the man they know to be making many of the decisions.