The Soviet Union's diplomatic treatment of Japan has been unbelievably clumsy since the end of World War II. The visit to Tokyo by Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the first by a Soviet foreign minister in 10 years, represents the beginning of an effort to be more graceful.
Actually, the diplomatic effort in Japan is part of a broader Soviet diplomatic campaign in the Pacific that began when Mikhail S. Gorbachev took over at the Kremlin last March.
Moscow is trying to reassure New Zealand and other nations in the South Pacific that the growing Soviet military presence in Southeast Asia poses no danger to the area. Imelda Marcos, the wife of the Philippine president, was entertained in the Soviet capital recently. At Soviet initiative, high-level contacts with China have resumed; the Soviet and Chinese foreign ministers will exchange visits later this year.
In trying to bring relations with Japan out of the deep freeze, the Soviets face some formidable obstacles of their own making.
Hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers captured by the Soviets never made it home after World War II. In recent years the Kremlin has frequently been rude, insensitive, even threatening in its dealings with Japan, which it treated as an American satellite. Most important of all, the Soviets have refused even to discuss the return of four northern islands that were occupied by the Soviets at the end of World War II but that Tokyo still considers to be Japanese territory.
Gorbachev, determined to modernize the Soviet economy, no doubt would like to gain access to Japanese capital and technology. The Kremlin may also hope that a show of friendship will undercut Japanese public support for the close alliance with the United States.
The Japanese government, for its part, welcomes what it sees as Soviet recognition of Japan's role as an economic superpower. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone may also figure that a mild Japanese flirtation with Moscow will help restrain Washington from being too assertive in demanding trade concessions from Japan.
But while Shevardnadze's visit may produce a more cordial atmosphere, perhaps even an agreement for a summit visit to Japan by Gorbachev it is unlikely to accomplish much more unless the Soviets are ready to talk about the return of Japan's northern islands. And there is no sign that they are. The islands' military importance for the Soviet Union was underscored by Gorbachev's pledge last March that he would not let them go.