Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's three-day visit here gave a push to a stalled relationship, officials agree. Although neither side gave ground on the bitter territorial dispute which divides them, both found hope in an agreement to create a permanent group to negotiate the issue. Progress in future talks, and on other issues, they also agreed, will set the stage for a summit meeting between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita.
Both sides eagerly put a positive face on the talks, but neither attempted to conceal the lack of movement on substantive issues. In two days of what Japanese officials called ``heated'' discussions, the two teams of negotiators held fast to rival claims of ownership of four islands north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, which have been occupied by the Soviet Union since the end of World War II.
The real test of the results of these just-concluded talks will come over the next half year when the Soviet and Japanese foreign ministers are now scheduled to meet at least twice. Lower-level officials will also be meeting to continue the negotiations on a peace treaty which would formally end World War II between Japan and the Soviet Union.
In the Japanese view, return of the islands is the centerpiece of such a treaty. Mr. Shevardnadze went so far as to say that the treaty should settle a ``complex of political, economic, and geographic questions.''
The underlying Soviet message was that if Tokyo shows flexibility, then Moscow will reciprocate, with the reward of a Gorbachev summit as part of the bait. ``Now we are ready to reason,'' an informed Soviet source says, but ``not to hear somebody demanding unrealistic things.'' The Japanese demand to ``give up all four islands at once'' fits that description, he says.
The Soviets tried at every opportunity to turn the talks to a subject that is essential to their aims with Japan - expanding economic cooperation. Shevardnadze put two proposals on the table - to negotiate an agreement to protect investment, aimed at drawing Japanese private business ventures, and a pact to promote economic ties.
The Japanese government abruptly rebuffed those Soviet economic overtures. Tokyo says the only way it can force concessions on the island issue is through trade and technology, which the Soviets need to enliven their stagnant economy. ``We continue to hold to the idea that politics and economics cannot be separated,'' Japanese Foreign Minister Sosuke Uno told reporters.
Shevardnadze made it clear that Moscow will continue to press for these gains. In a press conference before departing, he outlined five agreements which he said should be negotiated as preparation for a Gorbachev-Takeshita summit: environmental protection, the peaceful use of outer space, mutual protection of investments, the establishment of bank offices in both countries, and principles to govern overall economic cooperation.
How far Moscow will go to meet Japanese demands on the four islands remains unclear. Hints before this visit of a compromise formula such as a return of two of the islands - tentatively agreed to in 1956 - were absent during the talks.
Any such dramatic gestures are likely to be reserved for Mr. Gorbachev to deliver in a summit setting.
Japanese defense sources point to another possible scenario - a unilateral Soviet offer to withdraw limited Army and Air Force units stationed on the disputed islands. The Japanese have pointed to their presence as a particular affront. Last week the Japanese military's joint staff council ordered a study of the military value of those islands, a move which a defense official says is partly to evaluate whether the Soviets might consider removal of their forces there.