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Japanese-Soviet relations strained despite small moves toward dialogue

In recent weeks, Foreign Minister Shin-taro Abe has taken every public opportunity to speak about Japan's desire for better relations with the Soviet Union.

Moscow's response has not been greatly encouraging, but there have been two small breakthroughs in promoting a dialogue between the two countries: Mr. Abe will meet his Soviet counterpart, Andrei Gromyko, at the United Nations next month, and bilateral trade talks, suspended since 1981, will resume in Moscow in early October.

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At a press conference, Mr. Abe lamented that bilateral relations had worsened in recent years despite a ''strong Japanese willingness'' for improvement. He blamed the deterioration on a Soviet military buildup in the Far East and a refusal to discuss the ''northern territories'' dispute, which involves Japanese claims to islands north of Hokkaido seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II. Some of these islands have been converted into important Soviet military bases.

''This Soviet military buildup, including the deployment of SS-20 [ medium-range nuclear missiles] are things we cannot understand,'' Abe said. ''Japan is no threat to the Soviet Union, and the Soviet presence must be reduced in some way.''

This is viewed as the key topic to be raised by Abe when he meets Gromyko at the UN.

At present this will have to serve as a substitute for a long-postponed visit to Tokyo by Mr. Gromyko. Japanese efforts to persuade him to make this visit have been rejected on the grounds the ''climate is not right.'' (Moscow blames Japan for aligning itself with the United States militarily and says it has whipped up anti-Soviet feeling among Japanese people over the territorial issue.)

In Osaka, Abe said the crux of Japanese foreign policy remained unchanged, but some improvement in economic and cultural fields might result from opening a regular dialogue. On a visit to Hokkaido to inspect at long range the northern territories, he stressed that resumption of bilateral trade talks would be a move in the right direction.

Japan called off a trade conference scheduled for February 1982 on the grounds that Moscow had interfered in Poland's domestic affairs. It has refused to reverse this policy.

A high-ranking private Japanese mission that visited Moscow earlier this year returned with complaints that Japan was losing important business contracts to European and even US rivals because of its strict stance.

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Politically, Japanese officials see no signs of a breakthrough. The territorial dispute appears intractable. There was considerable indignation in Japan recently when the Russians announced that former residents of the northern islands were welcome to visit ancestral graves - on Soviet tourist entry visas.

Whether there can be any easing in the tensions arising from the Soviet military buildup depends in part on the US-Soviet intermediate range nuclear force reduction talks in Geneva. Privately, Japanese officials are not optimistic.

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