A cautious thawing of long-frozen Soviet-Japanese relations has begun. The Soviets seem to want Japanese help in economic development, while the Japanese look for at least some movement by Moscow toward settling Japan's long-held territorial claim to four islands occupied by the Soviet Union since the end of World War II.
Foreign Ministry sources here welcome Mikhail Gorbachev's assumption of the Soviet presidency and other changes suggesting the ascendancy of his policy of economic reforms.
Soviet analysts in this country note Mr. Gorbachev's personal interest in Asia, as evidenced in his Krasnoyarsk speech Sept. 16 and his Vladivostok speech two years ago. They see Moscow vigorously mending ties with Peking and establishing informal links with South Korea. They also discern movement in attitudes toward Japan as well.
For more than 30 years, the stubborn obstacle to Soviet-Japanese rapprochement has been the Northern Territories question - four islands and islets off the eastern tip of Hokkaido.
Moscow and Tokyo have never signed an official World War II peace treaty, although they have normalized relations. The Soviets promised to return two of the islands once a treaty was signed, but then changed tune in the 1970s. They insisted that boundaries established by Japan's defeat were inviolable, and that Japan had no valid claim to the islands.
Officially, Moscow's stance has not changed. But Gorbachev seems attracted by Japan's economic dynamism even as he shows concern over its increasing military budget. Economists said to be close to him have shown interest in how, within a capitalist structure, the Japanese government seems to be able to direct the course of the economy in cooperation with leading businessmen. Moscow would like to see whether some of that dynamism could not be imported into the Soviet economy.
And so, it appears that Moscow is informally coming up with all sorts of ideas as to how the Northern Territories problem can be settled.
Soviet economists have suggested co-ownership of the four disputed islands - Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan, and the Habomai islets. More recently they have suggested leasing all or part of the islands to Japan, and even part of the much bigger island of Sakhalin. The Japanese Foreign Office considers these suggestions to be trial balloons, disavowable if seen to be ineffective.
The Foreign Office rejects out of hand any lease proposals concerning the four disputed islands. Nothing that stops short of recognizing Japanese sovereignty over the islands will do, Japanese officials say.
Still, Japanese diplomats feel that the fact that Moscow is even talking about such unorthodox proposals shows that Gorbachev is looking for fresh approaches to the problem of dealing with Japan. The Japanese have reciprocated by scheduling high-level visits; various Japanese delegations are going to Moscow this month, with former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone making his second visit to the Kremlin since July. The Soviets, meanwhile, are sending Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to Japan Dec. 19-21, possibly to prepare the groundwork for a Gorbachev visit.
Soviet-Japanese trade has increased, and now stands at around $5 billion, with imports and exports about equal. This is half the size of Japan's trade with China.
But Japanese companies are not as interested in exploiting Siberia's coal, copper, timber, oil, and natural gas they were immediately after the oil shock of 1973-74. They know they would have to loan huge sums to Moscow to make such exploitation possible, and the territorial question is a convenient excuse not to get too deeply involved in trade with Moscow.
Movement on the territorial issue would not by itself change this situation. But the psychological effect could be considerable. Even businessmen, one official said dryly, are not immune to considerations of nationalism.
No one in Tokyo expects the territorial question with Moscow to be solved easily. Even if Moscow now admits that there is a territorial dispute, Soviet and Japanese positions on the Northern islands remain far apart. Nevertheless, the Japanese note Gorbachev's clear statement that he wants Soviet-Japanese bilateral relations to improve. Now, Foreign Ministry sources say, Japan is looking for ``concrete steps'' by the Soviet Union.