WHEN Mikhail Gorbachev sets foot in Japan next week, he will carry a heavy historical burden. ``Relations between the two countries during the last 150 years have been relations of war, semiwar, prewar, or postwar,'' says Mikhail Kapitsa, the director of the Institute of Oriental Studies and a former deputy foreign minister.
Since the empires of Japan and Russia signed their first treaty in 1855, no Russian leader, whether czar or Communist Party chief, has visited Japan.
In the minds of the Russian people, ``Japan usually is regarded as a hostile country,'' says Mr. Kapitsa, ``and it is now as well ... Whereas in Japan, the Japanese public considers the Soviet Union, Russia as a most unpleasant country.''
No peace treaty exists
To this day, Japan and the Soviet Union remain the only combatants of World War II who have not signed a formal peace treaty. Trade ties are minimal. Relations are at best cooly correct. Progress toward a treaty, and in resolving the territorial dispute that blocks it, will be the unavoidable criterion for success for Mr. Gorbachev's four-day visit.
Gorbachev's mere appearance in Japan, Soviet officials hope, will do much to overcome the legacy of mistrust. The visit is carefully choreographed with moments designed to warm Japanese hearts. Numerous agreements, on everything from economic cooperation to providing visits to the graves of Japanese prisoners of war who died in the Soviet Union, will be signed.
But in the end, the fate of the islands that the Japanese call their Northern Territories and that the Soviets consider part of their Kuril chain will occupy the center of attention.
The dispute over the islands is a metaphor for the entire history of conflict between these two nations and the cultural barrier that divides them. The islands - Shikotan, Etorofu, Kunashiri, and the Habomai group, as the Japanese call them - were acknowledged by treaty as Japanese territory in 1875. The Soviet Union seized them in the last days of World War II. The Japanese accuse the Soviets of violating a bilateral neutrality treaty and demand the islands return.
``The Japanese position is `hand over the four islands to us,''' says Kapitsa, a parliament member and considered a conservative Communist. ``Our position is we don't have spare territory. In between is, `Let's talk.' Maybe our children, our grandchildren will find a solution.''
``The main obstacle is psychological because we don't trust each other,'' says Soviet Japanologist Konstantin Sarkisov. ``Psychologically we are not ready to admit we have done injustice.''
There were great expectations that Gorbachev's visit would bring a solution to the territorial issue, at least to return Shikotan and the Habomais as was tentatively agreed in 1956. But many here believe that even if Gorbachev intended this, he is no longer politically able to make such a deal.
Gorbachev is vulnerable to criticism from right and left that he is going to sell precious Russian soil for money. That type of attack greeted Gorbachev's yielding to German reunification last year, a deal that included a large German aid package.
Russia seeks a role
Gorbachev's room to move is complicated by the conflict between the central and republican governments over where power lies. Boris Yeltsin's Russian government has demanded that no decision be made without its consent. ``The Russian parliament wants to solve this problem by themselves because then all the economic gains will come to their hands,'' suggests Mr. Sarkisov.
But Vladimir Lukin, an Asian specialist who heads the Russian parliament's committee on foreign affairs, says coordination has gone well. Indeed Russia's foreign minister has actively participated in the talks leading up to the visit.
``There is no substantial difference between our position and the position of the center,'' Mr. Lukin says, adding that he does not anticipate any discussion of the islands during the visit, ``only of the peace treaty.''
The complex tensions surrounding this issue clouded the most recent attempt to solve it, when Ichiro Ozawa, then head of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, held two rounds of talks with Gorbachev at the end of March. Mr. Ozawa arrived believing that the Soviets were ready to talk concretely about the islands, a conclusion reached as a result of signals coming from Moscow, sources close to him say.
Early meeting was formal
But the initial meeting was confined to a formal restatement of old views, leaving Ozawa disappointed with what one participant called the ``abstract'' talk. Aides spent all night trying to arrange an unusual second meeting, which yielded some atmospheric progress. ``For the first time, Gorbachev said in an official meeting that the islands problem would have to be included among other problems to be discussed,'' Ozawa said afterward. ``We have gone up on the sumo stage.''
Sarkisov agrees with that version of events. But other Soviet officials, including a close Gorbachev aide, were irritated by the demand for a second meeting. They saw Ozawa as pursuing a private political agenda, as trying to get Gorbachev to reveal his hand before the visit. Another more harshly calls Ozawa an ``imperialist'' who made ultimatums demanding that the islands be returned or no economic aid would be given.
Under these circumstances, Gorbachev and the Japanese may have to settle for a subtle compromise. Return of the four islands, in any form, is out, says Sarkisov, who has participated closely in preparations for the visit. But ``Gorbachev will admit the existence of the problem, he will refer to the 1956 Joint Declaration as the fundamental basis for solving this problem and for signing a peace treaty,'' he predicts. Gorbachev may also officially repudiate a 1960 linkage to removal of United States troop s from Japan.
The mood in Japanese-Soviet relations may then lighten, but that cannot alter the deeper historical reality. It is ironic, observes Sarkisov, that though the Soviets suffered in the war far more from German hands, ``we trust Germany more than Japan.'' The reason, he says, is that since the 18th century, ``we admitted the great influence and superiority of German culture, but we have never admitted that for Japan.''