THE occasion is surely momentous. President Mikhail Gorbachev is the first head of the Soviet Union, or of the Russian Empire for that matter, to visit Tokyo. The cherry blossom festival is in glory; but politically, the sky is gray. After a year and a half of exhaustive preparation to rule out unpleasant surprises, portfolios bulge with agreements and other documents ready for signature to show that the trip will have been worthwhile. Both sides want most to sign a peace treaty, at last formally ending the war between them; however, there is no sign that they have budged the final obstacle, the so-called Kurile Islands problem. This issue, bizarre in its origin, is a puzzling anachronism, an exercise in old Soviet thinking with Gor bachev defeating himself.
It all began at the Yalta conference, February 1945. The Western allies had been through a bad winter in Europe, the United States faced a bloody campaign against the Japanese home islands, the atomic bomb was only a project. They wanted Stalin to join the war in the Pacific and were willing to pay him for it - at the expense of China and Japan. Among the spoils he demanded was the Kurile chain of islands between Japan's Hokkaido and the Kamchatka peninsula. President Franklin D. Roosevelt raised no obj ection, on the mistaken assumption that Japan had seized the Kuriles from Russia. In fact, Russia had ceded them in an exchange of territory a century before. Another oversight was to let the Soviets also occupy four small islands adjacent to Hokkaido which had never been anything but Japanese. By the time Washington woke up, Moscow had expelled the Japanese population, colonized the four islands with Russians, fortified them, and declared the case closed. For Japan, the case has remained painfully open, an irredentist demand for the return of its "Northern Territories." The dispute has blocked restoration of full political, which means also economic, relations between the two.
One can easily imagine why Stalin and his military, in the pre-nuclear, pre-electronic age, should want all the islands. They help to protect the great naval bases of Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk. They enclose the Sea of Okhotsk as a pool for nuclear missile submarines. Japan's four specifically control what is said to be the deepest, safest submarine channel to the Pacific Ocean.
In 1955, Khrushchev gave up bases in Finland, ended the occupation of eastern Austria and dropped the assumed right to browbeat Yugoslavia in order to revive diplomatic contact with the outside world. Gorbachev has gone further, withdrawing from Germany and Eastern Europe because the cost of remaining was too high while economic help and prestige could be gained by leaving. In the Far East, he is reducing military manpower and offensive weapons without audible complaint from his generals. Tension on the long border with China is much relaxed, the special, sinister tie with North Korea appears to have been cut. Soviet operations from the huge Cam Ranh Bay base in Vietnam are greatly curtailed. Gorbachev is sounding the inspirational call for a great Asia-Pacific summit meeting to "transform the heavily militarized region into a zone of stability, good neighborliness, and cooperation." He should be the first to see that the precondition for this is normal relations with Japan. Yet, the Kremlin has ensured t hat the US-Japan security treaty with its massive and intimate defense commitments remains actively in force.
Gorbachev feels the need for Japanese trade and investment. He advocates joint ventures and advertises a free enterprise zone in Nakhodka, a major port near Vladivostok. He appears unaware that Japanese business sees little opportunity in the current Soviet economic chaos. In any case, Japan, Inc., will not steer capital to the Soviet Union as long as the Northern Territories issue is a thorn in its flesh.
The Japanese are eager for a peace treaty now and feel that Soviet weakness signals a chance; but the Kremlin has shot down the many trial balloons floated from Tokyo in the past year about the return of even two of the four islands. The closest thing to hints emanating from Moscow is that it will not accept Japan's territorial conditions but that change is possible - as the culmination of a long process of expanded relations, possibly including demilitarization.
Thirty-five years ago, Moscow offered to hand back the two smallest islands as part of a peace treaty. Japan refused and the offer has never been repeated. As Gorbachev's visit begins, the only thing clear is his need and Japan's desire for a peace settlement. How they square the contradictory terms remains to be seen.