As with United States-Soviet relations, so with Japan-Soviet relations, prospects for a thaw seem hopeful. In Moscow, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev told the Supreme Soviet last week that there was a ``realistic possibility of improving relations'' with Japan. In Tokyo, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone responded in the following terms:
``If your doorbell rings, you open the door and invite your guest into your living room. That is the proper way to behave between neighbors.''
He did not conceal that he sees great difficulties ahead. The major obstacle to Japanese-Soviet relations is Japan's territorial claim to four northern islands occupied by the Soviet Union since World War II.
Japanese approach towards Moscow are changing, however. In a speech to the Japan Press Club last Saturday, Nakasone said that without abandoning this basic stance, he would judge Soviet-Japanese relations on an ``overall'' basis which would include the territorial question, economic relations, and science and technology. Japan would see what moves Moscow made, and would respond accordingly.
One test of Soviet intentions will come early next year when Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze makes a long-awaited visit to Tokyo.
Moscow's goal in cultivating Japanese ties seems clear. On strategic nuclear issues, it is appealing to the antinuclear sentiment of the Japanese people as part of its campaign against the US nuclear arsenal. On economic issues, it is trying to interest Japanese business leaders in developing long-frozen Siberian resources. It is looking for Japanese technology to help modernize its antiquated plants and to improve productivity.
Under former Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko there was such insensitivity to Japanese feelings on the northern islands that very little progress could be made on economic questions, say analysts here.
But these days the Gorbachev smile is much in evidence East and West. He has already despatched Culture Minister Pyotr Demichev to Tokyo in September with a personal message to Nakasone. Soviet economic missions have visited Japan since then, and Soviet plants are ordering equipment from Japanese makers.
The Shevardnadze visit in January is expected to push the process forward -- by how much remains uncertain. For much progress to come of it, the Kremlin's new leader must come forward with a formula on the territorial issue acceptable to Tokyo, even though it may fall far short of any commitment to return the islands. Shevardnadze's bag of presents will show how much substance there is behind the Gorbachev smile.