ON the eve of President Clinton's Vancouver summit with Boris Yeltsin, one Western ally - Japan - has a very different view of Russia than the US and its partners.
The perception gap is symbolized by a Wall Street Journal editorial calling Mr. Yeltsin a "brave democrat" - and an Asahi Shimbun editorial that suggests: "Within Boris Yeltsin there coexists a democrat and an authoritarian."
As the host country for the Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Tokyo this summer, Japan has an important role to play in trying to obtain Western consensus on a meaningful aid package for Russia. French President Francois Mitterrand insists the world's seven largest industrial nations should hold an emergency summit on aid to Russia well before the scheduled date in July. Japanese Foreign Vice Minister Hisashi Owada has been touring Western capitals trying to obtain agreement on a special foreign and finance
minister's G-7 in April, leaving open the possibility of a summit in May.
Japanese officials say they will not let their different views on Russia keep them from working for a substantial economic rescue plan for Russia. But they do not want grand gestures such as they think Mr. Mitterrand has in mind. They want an implementable plan. Only about half the $24 billion pledged at last year's summit has been actually put to use, they say.
The usual Western explanation for Japanese coolness toward Moscow is that Tokyo is fixated on its territorial dispute with Russia; that Japan doesn't care whether Russia is democratic or authoritarian so long as it gets back the Northern Territories - three islands and a group of rocky islets adjoining Hokkaido that Russians call the southern Kuriles.
The reality is more complicated and deserves at least an airing in the international media, whatever one may think either of the justice or the timeliness of the Japanese position.
Tokyo maintains, and Washington agrees, that the former Soviet Union seized the islands after Aug. 15, 1945 - that is, after the Emperor's broadcast announcing Japan's surrender. "A case of Stalinist excess" as Ambassador Michael Armacost puts it. The Soviets occupied far more territory in Europe than in the Far East. But territorial changes in Europe were won by the Soviets on the battlefield and accepted by the other countries concerned, principally Germany and Poland.
In Japan's case, it was the Soviet Union that attacked Japan on Aug. 8, two days after the US bomb dropped on Hiroshima. About 600,000 Japanese POWs were kept in labor camps in various parts of the Soviet Union for up to four years after Japan's surrender, essentially as slave labor. Some 60,000 of them died.
At the San Francisco peace treaty of 1951, Japan gave up its claim to Karafuto (southern Sakhalin) and the Kuriles, but Moscow did not sign this treaty. Japanese officials say that Shigeru Yoshida, prime minister of Japan in those days, wanted to make a statement to the effect that the southern part of the Kuriles were native Japanese territory and that Japan would not abandon its claim to them. He was overruled by John Foster Dulles, architect of the peace treaty.
That's the background of the Japanese claim to the southern Kurile islands. Tokyo says it is not necessary for Moscow to pledge immediate return of the islands, or even to set a date. But it does want recognition that Russia will eventually return them. Tokyo has said repeatedly it will not bargain over the islands, that it wants them all back - not two, not three, but all four.
The problem for Tokyo today is to keep its claim alive while also keeping in step with the Western powers, led by the US. These powers feel preservation of a democratic Russia, or at least a Russia on the road to democracy, is a matter of transcendent importance for the West as a whole, including Japan.
On this question, opinion in Tokyo is split. Some agree with Washington. Others question Yeltsin's commitment to democracy and also question whether outside help can be effective until Russia puts its own house in order.
I happen to disagree with Tokyo's view. I do not think the Northern Territories issue can be settled unless it is put in a larger context. Why not a condominium over all the Kuriles - at least as a start? But Japanese feelings ought to be known.