Although Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze brought a welcome change in style during his five-day visit to Japan, there was no evidence of a shift in the substance of Soviet policy toward Japan. Mr. Shevardnadze's trip was marked by a noticeable warming in the chilly relations between the two nations. But the two sides remained deeply divided over Soviet occupation of four islands off the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido since World War II.
Japanese officials claimed to have achieved their ``primary objective'' of restoring regular political dialogue; Shevardnad-ze's was the highest-level visit by a Soviet official in 10 years. Furthermore, Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe will visit Moscow later this year, and Mr. Shevardnadze will return here next year. A possible summit between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Japanese Premier Yasuhiro Nakasone was discussed.
Extended negotiations yielded agreement on a joint communiqu'e, something that the last foreign ministers' meeting in 1978 failed to produce. The communiqu'e states that the two ministers resumed negotiations on a peace treaty formally ending World War II between Japan and the Soviet Union. Those talks had broken off a decade ago, when the Soviets refused to discuss the islands issue.
But the document falls short of Japanese hopes by failing to make explicit mention of the territorial dispute. The Soviet and Japanese foreign ministers engaged in at least three hours of what Shevardnadze called ``heated debate'' over the issue. Japan demands that the four Soviet-held islands be returned as the condition for concluding the peace treaty. The Soviets, officials here said, continued to insist that the problem is ``nonexistent.''
The Soviets focused on economic relations and on promoting Mr. Gorbachev's recently unveiled nuclear arms control proposal. While there was agreement to upgrade trade and economic discussions, the Japanese continue to resist Soviet desires for a long-term economic cooperation pact.
The Soviets would like to increase their economic links with Japan and loosen the Asian nation's ties to the United States, without conceding much on the real differences that exist between Moscow and Tokyo.
Shevardnadze displayed the new ``human'' face of Soviet diplomacy to the Japanese public. He sipped tea in a traditional Japanese garden and toured a modern auto plant. His wife appeared on the evening news trying on a Japanese kimono.
The Soviet leader took every opportunity, including meetings with leaders of the opposition socialist and communist parties, to push Gorbachev's disarmament proposal. While Japanese officials have generally welcomed the proposal, they are critical of its failure to include Soviet SS-20 intermediate nuclear missiles based in Asia and aimed at Japan and China. Arms control should not take place elsewhere at Asia's expense, Mr. Nakasone told Shevardnadze in his meeting with him.
The Soviets also pressed Japan on participation in President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars''). Shevardnadze told Mr. Abe that he did not expect Japan to be critical of SDI, but hopes Japan will carefully consider where its own interests lie on this issue.
Abe responded that Japan will make its own decision independently, said Foreign Ministry officials. He also pointed to the buildup of Soviet military forces in the Far East, urging Moscow to ``scale back its presence.''