Otaru, Japan — The setting is typically Japanese: a crowded kitchen, a meal of sushi, and animated conversation. But amid the clicking of chopsticks is heard the sound of Russian folk music. ``I've been to the Soviet Union twice and enjoyed it very much,'' says Ruiko, a Japanese homemaker, as she shows off her Russian doll collection and other souvenirs. ``The Soviet people were extremely friendly. Life there is bright and happy.''
Both Ruiko and her husband Tohru have traveled to the Soviet Union on subsidized tours sponsored by a Japanese-Soviet friendship society, and both have come home with positive impressions of Japan's northern neighbor. This sort of cultural exchange is just one example of growing Soviet-Japanese personal contacts, focused primarily on the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido.
Hokkaido is situated in a strategically sensitive area for the Soviets -- just across a narrow strait from the Soviet Union's Sakhalin Island, near which Korean Airlines Flight 7 was shot down two years ago by a Soviet interceptor.
Although Soviet foreign policy in Asia is often characterized as clumsy, the Soviets are waging a subtle and sometimes effective propaganda effort in Hokkaido. The apparent goal is to spruce up their badly tarnished image. Some analysts say that these efforts may be stepped up under the more polished leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Hokkaido is considered a backwater by the rest of Japan -- geographically, politically, and commercially. Not colonized until the late 19th century, the island's attempts to catch up with the rest of Japan have failed to bear fruit. In spite of central-government subsidies to attract industries there, major firms have been reluctant to move so far from Japan's commercial and industrial center along the Tokyo-Osaka coastal corridor. This has led to an image problem for Hokkaido -- one difficult for
the government to fix. The Soviet Union has been trying to use the problem to create direct ties between itself and Hokkaido.
``They want to have whatever levers of political influence they can get,'' says one high-level foreign diplomat. Soviet propaganda efforts appear to be aimed at eroding public support for US-Japanese military exercises, defusing territorial disputes, and isolating Hokkaido from the rest of Japan.
The stakes are high for the Soviet Union. The island commands several straits through which Soviet warships and submarines must pass on their way to the Pacific Ocean from their bases in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. One-third of Japan's self-defense forces are stationed in Hokkaido, and the island is the site of expanding US-Japanese joint military exercises.
Politically, Hokkaido has been the seat of the vocal ``Northern Territories'' movement, which seeks the return of several islands seized illegally by the Soviets at the end of World War II.
Hundreds of thousands of Japanese were expelled from territories occupied by the Soviets at the time; many were resettled in Hokkaido. These people are among the most vocal supporters of the Northern Territories movement. But they are also among the most willing travelers to the USSR and see personal benefits in closer relations.
``I would like to go back to visit because it's my family's home,'' says one Japanese who left Sakhalin with his family in 1948.
When they were forced out by the Soviets, many Japanese left behind ancestral grave sites. The Soviet Union has permitted limited access to Sakhalin and the disputed Northern Territories.
But such enticements appeal only to a shrinking number of older Japanese with direct links to the northern regions. An even more effective lever is cold cash -- in the form of herring and salmon.
Hokkaido lies near some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. But with the imposition of 200-mile economic zones, Japanese fishermen have found themselves closed out of waters now claimed by the Soviet Union or forced to limit their catches in accord with quotas set by Moscow. Fishermen have been known to bribe Soviet coastal officials in order to gain access to the waters or to exceed quotas. Frequently, they simply take their chances by slipping into Soviet waters without permission.
One way the fishermen try to limit the risk of such activities is to join one of the several privately-funded, Japanese-Soviet ``friendship centers'' that dot Hokkaido. According to Morio Mizuno, managing director of the largest such center in Hokkaido, ``the basic idea is that the Soviet Union is a neighboring country and a friend of Japan.''
The centers provide information about the USSR to the Japanese public and even help ease friction between Japanese fishermen and Soviet authorities. For example, the friendship center in Kushiro, on the Pacific coast of Hokkaido, attracts most of its members from the fishing community. ``It is said that if you join this friendship center, you get special treatment if you ever enter Soviet waters,'' says a high-level Japanese diplomat.
But it appears that Moscow's anticorruption campaign has hardened the hearts of the Soviet coast guard. Recently, fishermen in the Kushiro region were surprised when Soviet authorities handed down to friendship center members stiff fines for illegal fishing.
Sometimes, the economic motives behind loud exclamations of Japanese-Soviet friendship are even more obvious. Consider the case of Yasusaburo Shibano, founder and president of the Japanese-Soviet House of Friendship and Culture in Sapporo, opened in 1977. Mr. Shibano also is founder of a Japanese-Soviet trading company.
According to one friendship-house publication, trade between Shibano's company and the USSR grew from $2.75 million in 1972 to over $40 million in 1984.
``Both sides are using each other,'' says Professor Hiroshi Kimura, an expert on Soviet foreign policy at Hokkaido University. He points out that while the Japanese gain trade and fishing privileges, the Russians get public relations mileage.
The centers play host to many activities: exhibitions touting the virtues of Soviet life, Soviet movies, Russian-language classes, and subsidized tours of the Soviet Union. Earlier this summer, a group of 30 Japanese youngsters attended a Young Pioneer summer camp in Siberia -- under the auspices of a Japanese-Soviet friendship center.