Japan's 'Steel Arm' flexes his muscles: The mastermind behind Monday's defections from the ruling party is keeping a low profile for now, Terry McCarthy reports from Tokyo

THE MOST important man in Japanese politics these days did not turn up for his own party yesterday. When a group of 44 defectors from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) announced the founding of a new party in a Tokyo hotel, the mastermind of the operation, Ichiro Ozawa, was nowhere to be seen.

But the ominous shadow of the man known as 'Steel Arm' in political circles fell over the entire proceedings. The new party, to be called 'Shinsei' or New Life, was established by Tsutomu Hata, who pledged to 'turn a new page in history'. At a press conference from which Mr Ozawa was noticeably absent, Mr Hata said: 'Our party members have a sense of mission that tells us we must put an end to the politics that has lasted for a long period and take power.' Nobody doubted, however, that Mr Ozawa was the power behind the throne.

Mr Ozawa, 51, former secretary- general of the LDP, had been plotting yesterday's events for several years from behind the scenes. When asked where he was yesterday, his colleagues said he was 'busy preparing candidates for the election'. His long-term goal is a fundamental realignment of Japanese politics. His tactics are ruthless and well-calculated. And, ironically, his greatest liability is himself.

Much of Japanese politics is theatre, with different factions adopting public poses while the real power struggles are behind closed doors. The latest political crisis in Japan is no exception. On the surface a debate over cleaning up Japan's money politics went sour, leading to the fall of Kiichi Miyazawa's government last Friday and widespread calls for political reform.

Below the surface is a scheme devised by Mr Ozawa to ditch an entire generation of septuagenarian politicians, curb the power of unaccountable bureaucrats and end a political dynasty that made Japan a strong economic power but a diplomatic midget. The political reform issue was merely a convenient vehicle towards this goal.

But the irony for Mr Ozawa is that by riding on the political reform ticket he has almost disqualified himself from the game. His political mentors, from the age of 26 when he first entered politics, were three of the most corrupt - but powerful - politicians Japan has seen in modern times: Kakuei Tanaka, the prime minister felled by the Lockheed bribery scandal; Noboru Takeshita, the prime minister destroyed by the Recruit shares-for-favours scandal; and Shin Kanemaru, the LDP godfather arrested this year in connection with the Sagawa bribery and gangster scandal. With political friends like that, one might think, who needs enemies?

But Mr Ozawa has plenty of enemies. Ever since his father died and he took over his seat in the Diet (parliament) in 1969, Mr Ozawa has pushed hard for the only thing he knows: power. He has trampled on political opponents and abandoned each of his mentors without remorse when they lost their political usefulness to him.

On his way to the top - he became the secretary-general of the LDP, the next post to the prime minister, at 47 - Mr Ozawa acquired an image of arrogance and abrasiveness. While still under the protective cloak of Mr Kanemaru in 1991 he 'summoned' Mr Miyazawa, a man 22 years his senior, to an interview before 'endorsing' him for the prime ministership. And during a debate about sending Japan's soldiers overseas with the UN, he silenced the dissenting voice of Masaharu Gotoda, the 79-year-old Justice Minister, with the words: 'Those who won't be around in the 21st century should remain silent.'

With that pedigree, it is not surprising that 'Steel Arm' has decided to shun publicity during the current political debacle. He is too closely associated with the Sagawa scandal to risk exposing himself to too much scrutiny. Indeed, two months ago he actually told reporters that he was in 'retirement', although few were fooled.

But it suits him better to direct his political programme through Mr Hata from behind the scenes. Mr Hata has none of the associations with dirty politics, performs well in front of the television cameras and looks trustworthy. Mr Ozawa, by contrast, looks like 'a toad that has just licked something terribly bitter', according to Hajime Tamura, a former speaker of the Lower House of the Diet.

Mr Ozawa was born in Tokyo in 1942 and interrupted legal studies to run for his deceased father's Diet seat in the northern prefecture of Iwate in 1969. He was virtually adopted as a surrogate son by Kakuei Tanaka, the biggest of the LDP 'strongmen' at the time, and learnt quickly the importance of personal connections and power in Japanese politics from the inside. Mr Tanaka subsequently arranged his marriage with the daughter of a rich industrialist.

He has only had a short spell in the cabinet, as home affairs minister in 1985-86. Instead he has concentrated on the more influential posts within LDP advisory committees and the party's election bureau. Throughout his career he has sought the real sources of power.

And he has been recognised as someone who can get results: when the US wanted support from Japan during the Gulf war, it was Mr Ozawa, not the prime minister, Toshiki Kaifu, whom the US ambassador dealt with on a daily basis.

But now Mr Ozawa has finally made the break from the institution that supported him for 24 years. In the coming political showdown his 'steel arm' will have to take more strain than ever.

(Photograph omitted)