Puppet-master in a hall of mirrors: Ichiro Ozawa is the man of steel behind Japan's next premier, writes Terry McCarthy

TOKYO - All is not as it seems in the murky world of Japanese politics. Morihiro Hosokawa, head of the Japan New Party, is set to become prime minister, the first since 1955 not chosen from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). But already he is being called the puppet of a man with far more political experience and backroom power, a direct descendant of the most scandal-ridden faction of the old LDP, Ichiro Ozawa.

Such a dual power structure reaches deep into Japanese history. During the feudal era, which lasted until 1868, the emperors were manipulated by a series of military dictators, or shoguns, who used the imperial institution as a screen for their own power plays. On the psychological level, too, there is a two- tier reality: instinctively the Japanese mind conceals its intention (honne) and presents a front (tatemae) to the world.

Mr Ozawa, who masterminded the split of the LDP and the formation of the coalition of seven parties now poised to take power, is admired and feared in equal parts. In the political hall of mirrors where he has made his home for 25 years he is impossible to pin down, always flitting just out of his adversaries' reach, manipulating people relentlessly to his own ends. But his vision of an internationally responsible Japan, less dominated by bureaucrats and big business, is the touchstone for all that is changing since the LDP's humbling in last month's elections.

His latest game is to run Mr Hosokawa as a 'remote control' prime minister. Mr Ozawa is seen as the real power behind the new anti-LDP government. Cartoonists depict him as a puppet-master, manipulating a doll-like Mr Hosokawa on strings.

Mr Ozawa, 51, entered politics in 1969 when he was 26, winning the parliamentary seat left vacant by his father's death. From the beginning he displayed a remarkable ability to sense where real power lay and how to get there. Nicknamed 'Steel Arm', he cultivated the strongest (and most corrupt) LDP leaders and grew up in the shadow of Kakuei Tanaka, the prime minister felled by the Lockheed bribery affair, and two LDP godfathers linked to scandals, Noboru Takeshita and Shin Kanemaru. Mr Ozawa became LDP secretary-general at 47, and acquired a reputation for ruthlessness in his Machiavellian quest for power.

Since the elections, Mr Ozawa has been keeping a low profile. Mr Hosokawa asked him to become a minister but he refused. Mr Ozawa's unaccountability irks many Japanese. 'If those in each party who have real power . . . do not enter the cabinet, but secretly manoeuvre behind the scenes, there may be criticism that this is a dual power structure,' the daily Mainichi newspaper said this week.

Mr Ozawa dismissed such criticism as 'trivia'. He said the mission of politics was to 'provide the people with security and affluence. If that . . . can be achieved, it doesn't matter whether the structure is two-layered or four-layered.'

With Mr Hosokawa as his front, Mr Ozawa will try to implement his version of 'political reform', which has little to do with cleaning up money politics, but a lot to do with increasing politicians' power over bureaucrats and increasing Japan's voice in the world.