TOKYO -- Forced by circumstances of world diplomacy to make a trip he twice put off, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin arrived in Japan yesterday, offered his regrets for standing up the Japanese earlier and promised "absolutely" to make an official visit as early as the fall.
When he comes in the fall, Mr. Yeltsin promised Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, he will discuss a 48-year-old territorial dispute that has prevented the conclusion of a peace treaty to put a formal end to World War II for Japan and Russia. The differences have forestalled massive Japanese aid and investment to Russia.
Mr. Miyazawa, who won't be in office by then, responded favorably. But Japanese officials refused to make any predictions for an easing of the frictions between the two nations.
Mr. Yeltsin, accompanied by some of his Cabinet ministers, came here to urge leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations to remove trade barriers that discriminate against Russian goods and services and to seek implementation of billions in aid already pledged for his reforms.
But within minutes of landing in his presidential Ilyushin-62 jetliner at busy Haneda airport, Mr. Yeltsin went to work to improve the single worst relationship he and Russia have with a leading economic power and neighbor.
In remarks at the airport, he declared that relations with Japan are one of his foreign policy priorities. He said he is confident that the two sides can "eliminate the obstacles of the past and achieve a peaceful normalization of our relations."
His motive is obvious: Japan is the most skeptical G-7 nation about
the effectiveness of massive international assistance to boost Mr. Yeltsin's democratic and market-oriented agenda.
The Japanese were enraged when Mr. Yeltsin abruptly canceled a state visit in September just four days before he was due to arrive; they were insulted again in May when he initiated, then dropped a planned visit.
The reason was the issue that dominates relations between the two countries: four islands off the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido that troops of the Soviet Union occupied at the end of World War II.
Mr. Yeltsin last autumn blamed the cancellation of his trip on Japanese obstinacy in insisting that he recognize Tokyo's ultimate sovereignty over the islands.
Mr. Yeltsin's message yesterday was wholly different, as he tried to remind Japan's leadership and its citizens that his domestic opposition -- Communists and ultra-nationalists -- would seize on any concession he might make as a sellout of Russia's national interests.
"I regret that I could not, as had been earlier planned, come to Japan in September of last year," he said. "I'm grateful to the Japanese government and the people of Japan for understanding the conditions that did not then allow the visit.
"It will be carried out -- absolutely."
In April, he had astonished Japan by telling reporters that Mr. Miyazawa had "unequivocally dropped" Tokyo's longtime linkage of improvement in Russian-Japanese relations with a solution to the territorial dispute.
Not so, the Japanese said. Then in May, he announced that he was again "postponing" his first visit as Russia's president to Japan.
Mr. Miyazawa, who for decades has made little effort to hide his animosity toward the former Soviet Union and its treatment of about 600,000 Japanese prisoners-of-war -- about 10 percent died in POW camps -- told Mr. Yeltsin in the 35-minute meeting that his words at the airport were "a good message for the Japanese."
Pointing to the word "absolutely" in a copy of Mr. Yeltsin's airport statement, Mr. Miyazawa asked the Russian leader when he would be prepared to make the visit. Mr. Yeltsin replied, "September or October," according to both Russian and Japanese officials.
A Japanese official who briefed reporters said working-level talks would fix a date and determine the "contents" of the visit -- meaning what the two sides would do about resolving the territorial dispute.
The Russians, in their official statement describing the meeting with Mr. Miyazawa, mentioned no dates, or even the visit. There is a strong likelihood that the political struggle between Mr. Yeltsin and his foes in the anti-reform Congress of People's Deputies will again be in full swing this September or October.
Moreover, those are the same months that Mr. Yeltsin has suggested for holding elections for a new Russian legislature to replace the Congress.