ONLY a few weeks ago, before the eruption of the latest political crisis in Moscow, Japan was as rigid as ever in not giving immediate, substantial aid to Russia until it settled a territory dispute dating from World War II.
In fact, Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe upped the ante for improved ties last month by demanding an apology for the death of more than 50,000 Japanese prisoners-of-war in Soviet hands at the end of the war.
But with its Western partners asking Japan to join in a fast-paced economic rescue package for Russia, the harsh rhetoric in Tokyo has ceased for now. Officials here are scrambling to come up with new aid without a new move by Moscow on the dispute over of a group of four small islands in the Kurile chain.
For decades, Japan's conservative ruling party has built the islands dispute into an emotional public cause. The four islands off northern Japan were taken by Soviet troops in the days after Japan surrendered in 1945 as compensation for having entered the Pacific war just before it ended.
Backing off a hard-line stance on the islands has not yet opened Japan's leaders to domestic criticism. Two years ago, the government was able to justify its limited aid by proposing a vague policy of "balanced equilibrium." Japanese officials prefer that much of their aid be filtered through international organizations.
The amount of aid Japan is considering includes about $600 million in rescheduled debt, $1 billion in bilateral aid, and funds for multilateral loans. Last year, largely in response to United States and European pressure, Japan agreed to a $2.7 billion package, but only about $800 million has been disbursed so far.
TOKYO has bristled at recent demands by France and Germany to give more aid. "Germany may be extending tens of billions of dollars," said Mr. Watanabe. "But the Germans, who killed 10 million Russians during [World War II], got their territories [east Germany] back." Japan did not fight Russia in the war and lost territory.
Japan has also been under pressure to provide more than just aid.
As host to this year's summit of the seven major industrialized nations in July, Japan was worried that the meeting would focus on Russia's plight, and that Tokyo would be put in the position of having to coordinate an aid plan. In addition, Japan was reluctant to invite Russian President Boris Yelstin to attend, even though he was included in the last Group of Seven (G-7) gathering.
Relations between Japan and Russia worsened last September after Mr. Yelstin abruptly canceled a visit to Tokyo, citing Japanese intransigence on the islands dispute. But on Friday, Yeltsin received an official invitation from Japan. When France asked in mid-March for a special G-7 summit before July to design an aid package, the proposal opened a split in Japan's leadership, with the hard-line foreign ministry opposed to it and the prime minister at least open to the idea.
Japan dispatched its vice-minister for foreign affairs, Hisashi Owada, to various capitals to seek a compromise. With apparent reluctance, Japan also announced on Friday that it would host an emergency pre-summit meeting of G-7 foreign and finance ministers on April 14-15 to discuss a new G-7 aid package.
"Other G-7 nations understand our Russian-policy principles," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono stated. "Under these principles, we'll consider possible measures [for Russian aid.]
"The Russian problem is a global problem for all intents and purposes, a point which should be understood in all quarters of this country," stated a Mainichi newspaper editorial.
In a further shift, Japanese officials say they are no longer against an extraordinary G-7 summit in May.