WHILE Russia today considers itself part of a Europe that extends, in de Gaulle's grandiloquent words, "from the Atlantic to the Urals," it is also Japan's closest neighbor - closer, geographically, than either China or South Korea.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Russia was the only European power that contested territory with Japan, in Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands. The contest was temporarily settled in 1855, when the Russians agreed that the southern Kurile Islands should be Japanese, while Sakhalin and the northern Kuriles remained open to settlers either from Japan or Russia.
This is the basis for Tokyo's claim that what it calls the Northern Territories and the Russians call the southern Kuriles - islands and islets at the southern end of the Kurile chain - are inherently Japanese territory. After the 1855 treaty, there were periods when the entire Kurile chain belonged to Japan, and the southern half of Sakhalin as well, but it is only the so-called "four islands" - actually three islands and a group of rocky islets - that Japan wants the Russians to return.
Japanese diplomats acknowledge that Russo-Japanese relations as a whole cover a much wider range of issues than the territorial one. Japan has as much of a stake as the United States and other Western allies in the success of political democracy and a market economy in Russia. But Tokyo maintains that Moscow's willingness to come to terms with Japan on the territorial issue is an important indicator whether there is a new Russia ready to settle disputes on the basis of "law and righteousness," as the wor ld's seven leading industrial democracies (the G-7) declared at their Munich summit in July.
Japanese-Russian relations will continue to develop in spite of the abrupt "postponement" of President Boris Yeltsin's visit to Japan, these diplomats say. Next month Tokyo will host an international conference to coordinate aid to Russia, as planned.
But President Yeltsin's last-minute change of plans has put Japan in the media spotlight as being fixated on its own territorial claims when the other G-7 nations are more concerned about the survival of Russia's democratic experiment. Japanese officials fear that Yeltsin may ask the other G-7 nations to press Japan for greater economic generosity toward Moscow. They say that Tokyo has already pledged more than 2 billion dollars in various forms of international aid and that, with Yeltsin appearing to be
backsliding toward a more statist economic line, it is imprudent to come forward with a more spectacular aid package.
At a recent conference in Seoul on changes in the Asian international strategic environment, some American and European analysts held that Japan's refusal to budge on the territorial question is a holding operation, an effort not to let go of cold-war certainties until the evolving new world order becomes clearer.
The bedrock of Japan's foreign policy remains the security relationship with the US, according to this view, and a too-rapid rapprochement with Russia will strengthen forces both in the US and Japan that are trying to loosen or end this tie. A hopeful but uncertain relationship with a new Russia is a poor substitute for the 40-year political-military partnership with the US.
A simpler but emotionally more potent explanation for Japanese attitudes toward Moscow, it seems to me, is the following: Japan, having had to acknowledge war guilt to all the victorious allies in World War II, still resents the fact that, alone among these allies, the Soviet Union invaded Japan, not Japan the Soviet Union, at a time when the Hiroshima bomb had been dropped and Tokyo was on the verge of defeat. The islands in question were not occupied by Soviet troops until after Emperor Hirohito announ ced Japan's surrender. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops were detained under harsh conditions in Soviet labor camps for up to four years after the war.
Time may not heal these resentments. But history marches forward, and those trapped by the past risk being left behind. Japan has valid territorial claims against Russia. But the principal question facing this huge, unwieldy country today is whether the grand experiment in political democracy and a market economy will survive. Let Japan keep its claims, but let it shift the focus of its attention to this grander theme and to what Japan can do to help this experiment succeed.