Outside the Japanese Foreign Ministry in the Kasu-migaseki district of Tokyo, gunmetal-gray sound trucks cruise by constantly. Perched atop the trucks, dressed in military-type uniforms, members of extreme rightist groups blare anti-Soviet slogans at the glassed-in offices. The rightists have been gearing up for today's arrival of Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, the highest-level Soviet to visit Japan in 10 years. One truck bears a banner declaring: ``The Russian aim is Japanese technology and economic help! The return of the northern islands must be the center of Japanese diplomacy!''
Inside the Foreign Ministry, where the amplified slogans of the rightists can be heard clearly, officials more sedately echo that declaration.
Soviet desires for more access to Japanese technology and for investment in the development of Siberian natural resources will take a back seat, they say, to Japan's insistence on negotiating a peace treaty to formally end World War II. That means settlement of the postwar dispute over Soviet occupation of a cluster of small islands off Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido.
The Shevardnadze visit itself represents the beginning of a thaw in Japan-Soviet relations. During the four days of talks, Japanese will be watching carefully for any concrete sign of new flexibility in Soviet foreign policy toward Japan since the leadership change in Moscow last March. The northern-islands issue remains, for Japan, the crucial litmus test of any shift.
``Up to this stage,'' a Foreign Ministry official comments, ``we have seen a change in presentation and style -- not in substance.''
But even that is welcome. From that basis, Japanese officials hope to explore in the talks with Shevardnadze the possibility of a return to the formula of a 1973 joint-declaration between former leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Kakuei Tanaka. In the declaration, the Soviets acknowledged ``unresolved questions'' from World War II that were to be discussed.
``We aim at some kind of breakthrough on this,'' an official says. But short of that, the Japanese seek confirmation of a change they perceive in Moscow's approach to Japan: recent signs that the Soviet Union is recognizing Japan's strategic and economic importance. At minimum, Japan wants a return to regular (yearly) meetings at the foreign-minister level and possibly a meeting between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. [High-level diplomatic sources in Asia say that Mr. Gorbachev is likely to meet with Mr. Nakasone in Tokyo before next fall, Monitor correspondent Louis Wiznitzer reports from Paris.]
For their part, the Soviets have launched a mini-peace offensive in Japan. Last week a Soviet Embassy official traveled to the city of Nagoya to deliver a letter and presents from Gorbachev to 12-year-old Aiko Fukuda, who had written to him the way Samantha Smith wrote then-Soviet leader Yuri Andropov in 1983. Numerous Soviet officials have been coming here in recent months, holding discussions on a number of topics (including possible Japanese advice on economic management) and dropping hints at possible Soviet flexibility on the northern-islands issue.
This offensive ``is primarily aimed at dividing Japan from the United States,'' says a Foreign Ministry official. The Soviets have continued to criticize Japan's steady defense buildup and military links to the US.
There is no sign that the Japanese are vulnerable to such tactics. Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe's visit to Washington this past week was aimed, diplomatic sources say, at giving ``at least the appearance of linkage [to the Shevardnadze visit].'' The dispatch this week of a Japanese study team to Washington to discuss participation in the Reagan administration's program of research into space-based defense was a signal of Tokyo's unwillingness to yield on its ties to the US.
But that does not mean that Moscow's efforts are without impact. Japanese public opinion is -- like that of Western Europe -- generally pro-d'etente.
To the discomfort of Foreign Ministry officials, Nakasone has hinted several times at his desire to travel to Moscow in the near future. He would like to use a personal diplomatic triumph with Moscow to aid his effort to win another term next fall as prime minister, according to political analysts. The Foreign Ministry insists that another meeting of foreign ministers must follow and that it is Moscow's turn to send its leader to Tokyo. It is a view that also conveniently fits the political ambitions of Foreign Minister Abe, one of Nakasone's rivals for the premiership.
``The Soviets have been trying to play off Nakasone against Abe,'' a US official says, ``but they can't do it.'' To succeed, Moscow must be prepared to make some real concessions on the islands issue, something they have refused to do for the past 10 years.
``If the Soviet Union is clever enough,'' comments Seizaburo Sato, a professor of political science at Tokyo University, ``they can do a lot of things, and US-Japan relations will be much more strained. But, fortunately for us, they are too stubborn.''