A planned visit to Japan by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze has raised hopes here that the Soviet Union wants to improve relations. Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Kapitsa announced the intended visit in a meeting last week with Shintaro Abe, Japan's foreign minister.
A decision on when Shevardnadze visits Japan is expected Sept. 24, when Mr. Abe and Shevardnadze meet for talks at the Soviet UN mission in New York.
In earlier consultations with Shinichi Yanai, his Japanese counterpart, Mr. Kapitsa stressed that his country seriously intends to improve relations with Japan.
Kapitsa said the Soviet Union wants to discuss the Soviet idea of holding an international security conference in Asia. The proposed conference is designed to ease tensions in Asia.
Soviet-Japanese relations have been particularly cool since 1979, when the Japanese government joined the United States in imposing economic sanctions against the Soviet Union in protest of the invasion of Afghanistan. The mood between the two sides deteriorated even further after the shooting down of a South Korean jetliner north of Japan in 1983.
Trade between Japan and the Soviets fell to $3.9 billion last year after peaking in 1982 at $5.6 billion. To thaw the icy relations, Tokyo has been urging Soviet President Andrei Gromyko to visit the nation, but Mr. Gromyko has consistently declined.
Things began to look up when the two countries resumed economic talks last December for the first time in six years. The Soviet Union is looking to Japan for high technology and as a market for its natural resources. The Japanese are interested in exporting some equipment for Siberian energy projects.
The turning point in relations, however, came at the time of Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko's funeral, when Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone made his first official trip to Moscow and met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It was the first meeting between the two countries' top leaders in 12 years, and it was believed here that the change in Soviet leadership would bring a new tone to the two countries' relations.
Since the meeting, exchanges between the two nations have become more frequent. Their topics have included trade, fishing rights, tariffs, and culture.
Another positive factor was the July appointment of Shevardnadze as foreign minister. As a newcomer to the diplomatic scene, he may show a more flexible stance in dealings with the West than his predecessor, Gromyko, did, analysts here suggest.
Despite these positive signs, there are serious obstacles to improving ties. Opinion polls in Japan each year show a continued deep-seated distrust of the Soviet Union.
The biggest source of contention has been the question of sovereignty over the strategically-important ``Northern Territories,'' four Soviet-held islands off the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. To the Soviets, possession of the islands assures passage from Soviet bases in the Seas of Japan and Okhotsk to the Pacific Ocean. Japan considers the issue a major barrier to the conclusion of any peace treaty with the Soviets. When Japan raised the issue at the meeting last week, the Soviets repeated the ir traditional position that the issue doesn't exist.