HE is called the puppet master, the shadow shogun, the script writer. He is also called a dangerous man.
Ichiro Ozawa is the secretary-general of a political party that is nominally led by Japan's new prime minister, Tsutomu Hata. He is a back-room revolutionary who would change the values that guide the way Japan's government carries itself in the world.
But lately Mr. Ozawa seems to be stumbling. This week his maneuvering may have rendered Mr. Hata a lame-duck leader in the shortest time in the history of politics.
Less than 10 hours after Japan's Diet (parliament) elected Hata premier on Monday, the largest group in his coalition government, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), suddenly withdrew its support. The Socialists were upset about being outflanked by their coalition partners, who had earlier announced the formation of a new bloc with almost twice as many members as the SDP. Ozawa is generally thought to have been behind the move.
Yesterday Hata named a Cabinet and was sworn into office, but without the Socialists his administration will lack a majority in the Diet and will be constantly vulnerable to a vote of no confidence.
His is the first minority government here since 1955.
Ominously, the Socialists held talks this week with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the longstanding ruling party of Japan's postwar era that was ousted from power last July, about coordinating their opposition to Hata. Those two parties, though traditional rivals, control well over half the seats in the all-important lower house of the Diet.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, for Hata to pursue any dramatic legislative solutions to the problems now facing Japan: a three-year recession clinging to the economy, an aging population that will need more help from the government, and a contentious trade relationship with the United States. The US is also pushing Japan to take a more aggressive stance regarding North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program, a process whose key elements would require the Diet's approval.
Perhaps the most optimistic scenario anyone here is willing to venture is that the welterweight coalition will succeed in passing the overdue national budget, at which point Hata will be forced to dissolve his government and call elections. That could take a couple of months.
To think that a brief, perilous tenure has been visited upon Hata by Ozawa is puzzling and incongruous. The two men defected from the LDP together last year and have been allies in the realignment now under way in Japanese politics. Hata acknowledges Ozawa's role as script writer, though he says the actors can choose whether or not to play the scenes.
But earlier this week Hata himself sounded surprised at the formation of the new bloc, called Kaishin, or Reformation, saying he had not thought it would happen so soon.
Even so, it is possible to detect a little hesitancy in analysts' willingness to blame the announcement of Kaishin on Ozawa, because he is normally considered such a deft, behind-the-scenes power broker.
Critics, supporters, and independent observers join in saying that Ozawa is the smartest and most powerful figure in Japanese politics today. ``He is very bright and clear and sharp, and he has the power to carry things out,'' says Shigezo Hayasaka, an unstinting Ozawa booster. Mr. Hayasaka was secretary to the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who was one of Japan's strongest and most controversial leaders and a mentor to Ozawa.
Before leaving the LDP last year, Ozawa rose through the ranks under the patronage of Tanaka and others to become the party's secretary-general, the No. 2 post. He is known for prodigious fund-raising skills that have reportedly verged on the coercive and less-than-gentle powers of persuasion.
Ozawa has been accused of receiving improper political donations, but he insists that the transactions were lawful.
Nonetheless his deep involvement in LDP ``money-politics'' may be what keeps him off center stage, although he says he is most comfortable doing what he does best: pulling the strings.
Says a Western diplomat: ``He's the only one of these guys who has a vision.''
Ozawa published a book last year called ``Blueprints for Building a New Japan'' that helped cast him as the only original thinker in Japanese politics. He would like Japan to shed the rigorous pacifism of the past five decades and take on a more authoritative role in world politics, one commensurate with the country's economic stature. Ozawa says he just wants Japan to become a ``normal'' or ``ordinary'' nation.
But in the Japanese context, this idea of normal nationhood is far from ordinary.
Japan's postwar prosperity, says political scientist Rei Shiratori, was premised on the idea that Japan would enrich its economy by minimizing its military power. This principle was cast in direct contrast to an earlier philosophy of economic success through military expansion.
That notion was, for example, behind the Japanese invasions of Manchuria and Indonesia, which provided exploitable resources for Japanese industry and created a lot of unpleasant memories in Asia about Japanese colonialism.
Ozawa, says Yukio Matsuyama, a leading journalist and commentator, ``does not reflect on the wrongdoings that our forefathers did on the Chinese continent. His attitude toward history, I'm afraid, is rather dangerous.''
Professor Shiratori says there is reason to be grateful for the political instability in Tokyo. ``If we had a clear-cut political goal - like `We will build up an Asian common market that might be a more dangerous thing for the world. In that sense, Ozawa is a dangerous person.''
Of course there is a good deal of opposition to Ozawa's vision.
``Once we display military power,'' says Hideko Itoh, a Socialist Diet member, ``that would cause fear among Asian nations. They were our victims in the past. Then Japan would become isolated.''