When Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev went to Tokyo on an historic visit this past week, he hoped to convince the wealthy Japanese to provide billions in aid to the faltering Soviet economy. In turn, Japan's leaders wanted the return of northern islands seized in World War II, an issue that has kept the two countries at odds for 45 years.

Unhappily, neither side got what it wanted. But Gorbachev appears to have come away as the big loser.In retrospect, it's not surprising that the summit failed. Gorbachev did not have anything with which to bargain. He badly needed the $28 billion worth of Japanese aid and investment offered as a basis for the return of the four tiny islands. But because of his shaky political situation back home, he was in no position to give away Soviet territory.

As result, he was reduced to pleading before the Japanese Parliament that Japan and other industrialized nations should provide economic and moral support for his democratization process in the Soviet Union.

That plea might have carried some weight in the past. But, under pressure from hard-liners at home, as well as independence movements by several of the Soviet republics, Gorbachev has retreated from many of his experiments with an open society.

Mere words were not enough. The Japanese rightly demanded something in return for any new diplomatic and economic arrangement with the Soviet Union. The price they were willing to pay for return of the islands was impressive, especially since the islands are small, were formerly mostly uninhabitated and were used mainly by fishermen.

In the 45 years the Soviets have held the islands, they founded several settlements, built airstrips and turned the islands into minor military bases. In the post-Cold War era, those bases have much less value.

It is an indication of Gorbachev's increasingly desperate political plight that he could not make the small gesture of giving up the islands - even in return for an enormous financial payoff. As a result, he returns home empty-handed.

Ironically, he held onto the islands because he couldn't afford politically to give them up. Yet keeping the islands and failing to get the aid leaves him weaker and more vulnerable than before, with the Soviet economy on the verge of collapse. The Soviet leader has lost another round in his fight for political survival.