TOKYO -- Almost half a century after World War II ended for everyone else, Moscow and Tokyo may finally be getting ready to call it quits.
Talking to Japanese leaders yesterday on the second day of his three-day trip to Japan, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin offered a long-awaited expression of sorrow for the hundreds of thousands of Japanese prisoners captured in the final days of war.
Almost half the prisoners were said to have died in forced labor camps prior to 1956, when remaining survivors were released.
Only two months ago, Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa shocked his own nation by publicly acknowledging Japan's responsibility for aggression in World War II.
President Yeltsin also pledged to withdraw thousands of military personnel from an island off Japan's northeastern coast.
The island sits amid an archipelago called the South Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan and has been the subject of a bitter territorial dispute since it was seized by Russia in the last week of the war.
The Russian president then offered a series of statements that seemed to suggest a willingness to end the territorial dispute itself, a move that could permit the two neighboring global powers to sign a post-World War peace treaty.
Tokyo has withheld large-scale bilateral aid, pending signature of such a peace treaty. It has pledged $5 billion in humanitarian and multilateral assistance to Moscow, but very little of that actually has been delivered.
Given that President Yeltsin's trip has come in the aftermath of an aborted revolt by hard-liners against his rule, many in Japan thought he would lack sufficient support to be forthcoming on any of the sensitive issues.
He had been quoted while in Russia as saying he specifically wanted to avoid talking about the territorial dispute that has soured relations between Moscow and Tokyo for decades.
But the day began auspiciously when President Yeltsin directly addressed the POW issue during an audience with Japan's Emperor Akihito.
"I feel deep sorrow for the many Japanese who died on Russian soil," he was quoted by palace officials as saying.
Subsequently, Foreign Ministry officials reported he made a more direct apology in his first meeting with Prime Minister Hosokawa.
At a following luncheon sponsored by the heads of Japan's largest companies, Mr. Yeltsin referred to his conversations with the emperor and the prime minister and said:
"I made my apologies . . . for the inhumane acts perpetrated against Japanese POWs in 1945 and later on."
Commenting on Mr. Yeltsin's statements, a Foreign Ministry official said the POW issue had "long been a thorn in the flesh of our relationship," and Mr. Yeltsin had gone "a long way to healing the scars of the past."
Prime Minister Hosokawa emphasized the most important obstacle blocking relationships between the two countries was the disposition of the so-called Northern Territories -- four mostly desolate islands seized from Japan in the days immediately after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
The Kurils are strategically important for Russia's nuclear submarines.
But a significant military installation on one of the islands recently had its troop strength reduced from perhaps 10,000 to 5,000, a Foreign Ministry official said. President Yeltsin also said all but border guards would be removed from the island, though no time frame was set.
For many years, leaders of the Soviet Union had refused to even acknowledge a disagreement existed on sovereignty over the islands, but President Yeltsin this time said the problem was recognized and must be resolved.
Cryptically, he then added that his government would respect all prior treaties and agreements between the Soviet Union and Japan.
A 1956 tentative agreement called for two of the four islands to be turned over to Japan.
That fell through in the early 1960s after Japan signed a comprehensive security arrangement with the United States. The broken negotiations were never concluded.