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Out of Japan: Endless enigma lies at the very heart of power

TOKYO - Who holds power in Japan? This is perhaps the most frustrating question for anyone trying to understand how Japan works. Its corollary - to whom do we talk to to get something done? - is the 64,000-dollar question for governments seeking to negotiate with Japan. For decades foreign diplomats, business people and academics grasped at one centre of power after another, only to find each one dissolve like quicksilver between their fingers.

The prime minister does not hold power. For more than two weeks, Japan has been without one, after Morihiro Hosokawa resigned because of a financial scandal. There was no sense of crisis and few seemed aware that there was no head of government. Nor does anyone seem to care that the bickering over Mr Hosokawa's successor means that Japan has had no budget for more than a month. The system continues working smoothly, as if political control and decision-making were a colourful irrelevance to running the country.

Mr Hosokawa has not been distraught and miserable, stripped of his job after eight short months as the leader of the world's second most powerful economy. Mr Hosokawa has been gambolling like a schoolboy at the beginning of his summer holidays, merrily attending dinner parties and cherry-blossom-viewing ceremonies as if nothing had happened. Last week he told two colleagues that he had been manipulated and 'used as a tool' by bureaucrats.

It would be wrong to think of Japan as a carefree, anarchic society. Maddeningly anonymous and apparently unaccountable, power structures thread their way throughout Japanese society, leaving not the smallest space without some form of constraint. The positioning of a bus-stop, the timing of the entire workforce's summer holidays, stunting the roots of a bonsai tree - everything must be subjected to control. Nothing can be left to grow wild, at random, of its own accord.

There is a whiff of fear in Japan's fabled politeness and social deference, as if samurai still roamed the country able to kill people of lower class without retribution. Pedestrians walk with eyes downcast in an unobtrusive, almost servile, manner - as if to look someone in the eye risked provoking a challenge from an armed superior and immediate dispatch with a sword-thrust. Bowing to express one's inferiority is a highly developed social skill.

Street crime is rare in Japan, yet the police drive around in armoured cars similar to those used by South African troops when confronting township riots. Schoolchildren wear the same uniform, get regulation haircuts, buy identical schoolbags and eat their mothers' packed lunches that have the same components in the same-sized lunch box as all their classmates. In office lifts, the youngest woman invariably takes charge of the buttons to open and close the doors. When the last emperor was dying, the nation adopted a sombre 'self-restraint', cancelling parties out of respect.

And yet if you ask any Japanese who told him or her to behave in this manner, the answer will be vague: 'It is just done that way.' 'Consensus,' say the experts, nodding sagely. 'Individuals are terrified of taking responsibility for a decision.' But that does not explain Japanese power hierarchies either, since often the consensus is a manufactured myth.

Most Japanese, when pressed, admit to feeling little for the remote figure of the Emperor. The average salaryman dislikes the stereotyping and conformism. He tolerates - if not actually resents - the heavy-handed authority of the police, local bureaucrats, right-wing extremists who deafen the streets with their amplified propaganda, dictatorial teachers, government officials, gangsters and the other wielders of power.

Nor can one build a watertight case for the conspiracy theory about the top bureaucrats who supposedly run Japan Inc to take over the world. Senior bureaucrats spend more time protecting their own fiefdoms than plotting to destroy Western industry.

Karel van Wolferen, who wrote a book entitled The Enigma of Japanese Power, concluded that 'no one is ultimately in charge'. Japan, he says, 'is pushed, or pulled, or kept afloat, but not actually led, by many powerholders in what I call the System'.

But who controls the System? The veteran journalist Tiziano Terzani, says real power is held by five small, old, grey-haired men in the small town of Kamakura outside Tokyo. Everything can be traced back to their regular policy meetings. But despite years of research, Mr Terzani has not managed to dig up their address.