Masayoshl Ohira, Japan's 14th postwar prime minister who died after a heart attack today, was one of Japan's most durable if colorless politicians.

Ohira was an astute operator within the long ruling Liberal Democratic Party, while closely identified with the party's moderate conservatism. He became a major political figure in 1960 and was consulted about the formation of each Japanese government thereafter. Yet, when he finally reached the top himself in 1978, he was 68 years old and proved to be too cautious to make a significant impact.

Ohira's slow-moving cautiousness reflected the instinctive attitude of a career bureaucrat and party manager accustomed to thinking hard and long about where he wanted to go.

One story making the rounds here last fall compared Ohira to a character in a Japanese proverb, a man so careful that before crossing any stone bridge he would tap on each part to assess its strength. The only difference, so the story goes, is that Ohira tapped every stone on every bridge -- and didn't cross any of them.

In foreign affairs, he favored reconciliation with China long before his party accepted that position in 1972. At home, he was less enthusiastic about defense spending and he opposed nuclearization of Japan. Apart from these policies, he was a pragmatic conciliator readier to accommodate dissenting views that his more truculent predecessors.

A beefy, slow-moving, taciturn man nicknamed "Daddy" by his associates, he rarely showed anger in the public. Philosophically, he took a modest view of what men of his calling can accomplish. "The reality of the political world," he once said, "is that it is not all being operated by saintly and noble people."

He also contended that government intervenes too much in people's lives and that people in turn have come to depend too much on government. As prime minister, he undertook no initiative other than trying to restructure Japan's finances by reducing public borrowing.

Like most Japanese politicians, Ohira was a self-made man who followed the road of bureaucratic politics to the top. The son of a farmer from the island of Shikoku, he put himself through college, then joined the Finance Ministry, becoming an aide to Hayato Ikeda.

Ikeda, who subsequently became prime minister, aided Ohira's career. Ohira served in successive governments as finance minister, foreign minister, and minister of international trade and industry.

Yet he differed from the typical Japanese politician. A Christian in a country of Buddhists and Shintoists, he also was a teetotaler in a business whose practitioners are known for heavy drinking. He also possessed insatiable intellectual curiosity. Unlike most of his contemporaries in key roles he was an avid reader who made two or three regular weekly trips to the bookstore.

Ohira was a poor public speaker and was completely lacking in charisma. He had a reputation for making up his mind slowly and sticking to decisions once made. But his bitter intra-party struggle two years ago against his predecessor Takeo Fukuda, subsequently hampered his effectiveness in office.

Ohira's economic views changed over the years. His reputation was built in Japan's high-growth days of the 1960s and Ohira was an enthusiastic promoter of economic expansion. Recently however, he talked frequently of Japan having entered the era of slow economic growth.

If there was one clear theme running through his recent pronouncements, it was Ohira's sense of the limits to what governments can accomplish. In defense matters, he relied on the American nuclear umbrella and was viewed as a close ally of the United States.

While as prime minister he was plagued by factional difficulties within his own party, Ohira enjoyed a broad popular support since he himself was the archetype of the Japanese mainstream style and thinking.

He proposed few new ideas to make his tenure as prime minister memorable. But this was, perhaps, due to his essential skepticism about government -- he once said that in public service it is better to "eliminate one evil" than try to accomplish many "benefits."

In his autobiography, he cautioned against seeking answers to problems that could make matters worse than they already were.

Yet, despite his proverbial caution and his skill in political maneuvering, he was surprisingly defeated last month on a routine motion in the Diet. He did not consider the outcome a personal defeat, refusing to resign as his political enemies urged.

Instead, with the tenacity for which he was known, he took his record to the people by calling for elections on June 22. He entered a Tokyo hospital on May 30, suffering from irregular pulse and fatigue. He said he would conduct his reelection campaign from his hospital bed.