TOKYO — Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze ended a five-day official visit here Sunday, leaving behind hopes for improved relations and a vaguely worded joint communique that allowed both Japanese and Soviet officials to underscore their positions in a long territorial dispute.
Although the territorial question cast a shadow on Shevardnadze's visit, the first by a Soviet foreign minister in 10 years, the talks represented a thawing of relations that chilled when Japan imposed sanctions after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the crackdown by Poland's Soviet-backed government on the Polish trade union, Solidarity.
Shevardnadze and his Japanese counterpart, Shintaro Abe, promised to regularize their meetings, signed agreements on taxation and trade payments, extended a temporary accord permitting cultural exchanges and agreed to try to come up with a comprehensive cultural agreement this year.
All the same, just before heading home via North Korea, Shevardnadze told reporters that "there had been some heated exchanges" during 11 hours of negotiations with Abe.
Much of the debate appears to have been over the communique's wording alluding to four small islands just off Japan's northeast coast. The Soviets seized the islands at the end of World War II and continue to occupy them. Japan maintains its claim to them, and the dispute has blocked conclusion of a peace treaty.
Shortly after Shevardnadze's departure, Abe told reporters that the communique "clearly stated that negotiations would resume on the peace treaty and these would include the territorial problem." Abe called it a "starting point." The last such talks, held in Moscow in 1978, broke down in arguments over the territorial question.
But Shevardnadze, at his pre-departure news conference, insisted that it was Abe who brought up the territorial issue, and that "the Soviet view on this matter has not changed at all."
The communique issued Sunday does not specifically mention the islands. Its key passage says, "The two foreign ministers conducted negotiations on the conclusion of a peace treaty, including the problems which might constitute the content of the said treaty, on the basis of the agreement affirmed in the joint statement of Oct. 10, 1973. The two sides agreed to continue this negotiation in their next consultations to be held in Moscow."
A Japanese official said the Soviets previously refused even to negotiate on the status of the islands. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Shevardnadze's predecessor, Andrei A. Gromyko, declined invitations to come to Japan in 1980 and 1984 because he did not want to discuss the territorial question.
The official also said that Sunday's communique is strengthened by its reference to the 1973 statement, which he said was accompanied by a verbal agreement between the late Soviet leader, Leonid I. Brezhnev, and former Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka that the territorial issue was part of the "unresolved problems" related to the peace treaty.
But the 1973 communique, which included no specific reference to the islands, was followed by further disputes when Soviet officials denied the existence of a verbal agreement, and Japanese officials accused the Soviets of going back on their word.
Although the disputed islands, off Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island, are close to rich fishing grounds, the territorial issue is more a matter of emotion than economics. Successive Japanese leaders have said that Japan's postwar period will not have ended until the islands are returned. Moscow's stationing in 1979 of 10,000 troops and 40 advanced jet fighters and the building of a naval base on Etorofu, one of two large islands in the group, deepened resentment toward the Soviet Union.
Strategic questions loomed large in the talks between Shevardnadze and Abe, and Abe stressed that the Soviet Union should not expect Japanese cooperation in exploiting Siberian resources until "the political climate between them had become more stable." Abe expressed concern to Shevardnadze over the recent Soviet naval buildup in the Pacific and the deployment of Soviet SS-20 medium-range missiles in Siberia. Abe said Shevardnadze told him the Soviet buildup was a response to increased U.S. forces in the Western Pacific.