A WEEK before Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze is to visit Tokyo, the Kremlin has made a nodding gesture of goodwill toward Japan. The Japanese hope the nod will lead to a full bow.
Moscow allowed a few dozen Japanese to pay respects at the graves of their ancestors during a trip to the neighboring Kurile Islands, taken over by the Soviet Army at the end of World War II.
The gesture played well in Japan, where ancestor worship runs deep, while the Russian hosts hinted at why the visit was granted. ``I want to work with Japanese people on this island [someday],'' a Russian resident was quoted as telling the visitors.
The Japanese, whose relatives once lived on the southern Kuriles, found few of the old graves left intact. Russians live there now, alongside an Army division and MIG-23 fighter jets.
The islands, although of little economic or strategic value, are passionately claimed by Japan, which refers to them as ``the Northern Territories,'' being just north of big Hokkaido island. Soviet insistence on keeping them as war booty has so far prevented Japan from offering economic cooperation to Moscow.
But next spring, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who is eager to obtain Japanese aid and technology, plans a trip to Japan. He would be the first Kremlin chief ever to visit Tokyo.
Mr. Shevardnadze is expected to prepare the ground for the Gorbachev visit during his Sept. 5-7 talks in Tokyo. ``We would like the visit to be a substantial occasion to make a real breakthrough,'' says a top Japanese Foreign Ministry official.
But officials are pessimistic, despite what they call ``daily utterings'' in recent months from politicians and academics on both sides who have proposed compromises such as United Nations control of the islands.
At the negotiating table, neither side has shown any flexibility. Japan insists on resolving the island question before it will conclude a peace treaty officially ending the war between the world's largest country and the world's newest economic superpower.
Last month, Japan rejected a West German request to provide loans to the ailing Soviet economy. The territorial dispute was not the only reason for saying ``no.'' Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama said that such aid would be ``like giving sugar to a diabetic,'' a remark that did not sit well in Moscow.
Despite the standoff, Japan will offer Shevardnadze a ``framework'' of new cooperation in the hope that the Soviets will relinquish the islands eventually, as they surrendered Eastern Europe. ``What history has proven is that the Soviet Union handles these [territorial] issues case by case,'' says the Japanese ministry official.
The proposed framework includes exchanges of people, culture, and some technology, including nuclear research. And the two nations will try to work together on regional problems, such as Cambodia and Korea.
Japan regards this week's visits to the island grave sites as a partial Soviet response to its offers. In an interview published Tuesday in the Japanese daily, Yomiuri Shimbun, Shevardnadze indicated the possibility of a pullout of Soviet troops from the islands. Another sign of change was an unusual trip - made without visas - of a Japanese plane to the nearby Soviet-controlled Sakhalin Island on Aug. 28 to pick up a severely burned Russian boy and bring him to Japan for treatment, at the request of local Soviet officials. Japanese officials warn that if the Soviets expect progress in these areas without settling the territorial claim, ``they will be disappointed.'' But the Soviets may test Japan's resolve on its limits to improving the relationship. For instance, Moscow is reported to be asking that its state bank open a Tokyo branch.
At best, Japan wants the Gorbachev visit to appear a success. ``Unless we offer something interesting, he may not come and negotiate about the islands,'' says Nobuo Matsunaga, former Japanese ambassador to the United States.