When Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone sat down with his Soviet counterpart, Nikolai Tikhonov, in New Delhi last week, talk turned toward a chain of small, wind-battered islands northeast of Japan's Hokkaido Island.

Nakasone pressed Tikhonov to return the islands that the Soviets have controlled since their troops landed there in September 1945 to disarm surrendering Imperial Japanese forces.

Tikhonov, however, chided him for raising the subject at all. Relations with Moscow might never improve, the Soviet prime minister warned, unless the Japanese dropped the issue altogether.

It was a ritual the two countries have performed countless times in the past 40 years, always at the initiation of the Japanese. Recovery of the islands, known here as "The Northern Territories," is a great national goal.

They are the subject of an extraordinary educational campaign that the Japanese government directs at its own people. Protest songs, monuments and a day of national commemoration of the Soviet "occupation" all play a part.

Indeed, the islands are one of the few subjects on which post-war taboos against nationalistic rhetoric are ignored. Passionate talk of homeland and sacred soil is common and acceptable. "It touches on the very sovereignty of the Japanese nation," remarked an official who helps organize the government campaign.

Japan is realistic enough to know it must deal with the Soviets regardless. Yet, because Soviet intransigence on the islands color the entire relationship for many Japanese, it can hamper progress in other sectors.

For years, Moscow has proposed signing of a peace treaty with Japan to end formally the hostilities of World War II. The Japanese, however, say no, not until the islands issue is settled.

The islands may also figure in Moscow's luke-warm response to a long-standing Japanese invitation to Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to visit Tokyo.

Gromyko will come, Moscow says, as soon as his trip would be "comfortable" and "effective," two qualities that would presumably be missing if the Japanese kept on about the islands.

Japanese-Soviet relations chilled to an unusual low after the Soviet Army's intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. In protest, Japan joined the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and put the brakes on joint development projects in Siberia.

The Soviet downing of a Korean Air Lines 747 last year just outside Japanese waters brought further strain. It was Japanese intelligence that recorded a Soviet fighter pilot's radioed words that "the target is destroyed" and confirmed to the world how the jet met its end.

In addition, Mosocw has condemned Japan's development of closer military ties with the United States during the Reagan administration. At the same time, Nakasone is continuing to build up Japan's armed forces, and the Soviets are cast as the enemy in field exercises.

As the two countries' navies and air forces continue a cat-and-mouse game north of Hokkaido, Japan complains that the Soviet Union is conducting a menacing build-up of its Far East forces and that Soviet planes periodically violate its air space.

Two-way trade between the two countries has never been large, accounting for only about 2 percent of Japan's total. In 1983, following steady growth in the 1970s and early '80s, it sank by almost 25 percent, to about $4.3 billion.

Multi-billion dollar joint development projects in Siberia, from which Japan hopes to import large quantities of natural gas, coal and other resources, have been delayed, with the Soviets blaming Tokyo's sanctions.

There are signs now that both sides want a thaw but cannot agree on how to achieve one. The Nakasone-Tikhonov meeting followed a visit to Moscow by one of Nakasone's close political associates. Japan has invited Gromyko and just received a group of Soviet legislators, which included unusually high-ranking officials.

But so far, bland statements that each side desires better relations and agrees to continue talking is all that has come from the meetings.

Moscow says Gromyko will not come until it would be "comfortable" and "effective" for him to do so. He would not feel comfortable discussing the islands, among other subjects, nor would he feel that such talks could be effective.

The issue involves more than national pride. The loss of rich fishing waters -- Soviet patrol boats routinely chase Japanese fishermen away from the islands -- and historic fears of military encroachment from the north also figure in Japanese motivations.

The closest of the islands is only three miles off Hokkaido -- Japanese tourists can see an old lighthouse across the strait. The Soviets have stationed a division of ground troops and 40 MiG23s on the other islands, officials here say.

In many respects, the dispute is a continuation of one dating to the 19th Century, when Imperial Japan and Czarist Russia vied for control of Sakhalin Island, Korea and other buffer territories. Japan won a 1904-1905 war with Russia; it lost the next round in 1945.

The contested territories consist of three main islands, known in Japanese as Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan, and a cluster of smaller ones called the Habomai. Total area is about 2,000 square miles.

They are rough and hilly, snow-covered much of the year and buffeted by cold winds from the Pacific Ocean. Etorofu has an excellent natural harbor -- the fleet that hit Pearl Harbor, in fact, assembled there in secret before the attack.

When Soviet troops arrived at the war's end, about 16,000 Japanese lived on the islands, operating canning factories, mines and fishing fleets. All were deported south. Many took up residence on Hokkaido.

"If Japan ever gets the islands back, my place is there," said Etsuo Fuwa, 51, who left Shikotan as a primary school boy. He now lives in Hokkaido, but recalls a rough but beautiful life in a small fishing and logging community there.

Today, many old residents take part in ceremonies on Feb. 7 -- designated Northern Territories Day by the Japanese Cabinet.

National political leaders, including the prime minister, attend a convention in Tokyo, while smaller rallies are staged around the country.

A song by popular songwriter Hisaya Morishige salutes the former residents of Kunashiri. Its opening lines: "Oh, Kunashiri, my home where the white tombstones of you, father and mother, are found, how can you sleep in peace?"

In September, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party sent a delegation to the United States to call on map companies and assure they properly marked them as occupied Japanese territory. Late this month, the governor of Hokkaido will go to United Nations headquarters in New York to press the Japanese claim.

The surrender of 1945 required Japan to relinquish all territory seized by force before or during the war. Japan argues that it had always owned the islands and therefore had no obligation to give them up.

Japanese settlers came to the islands in the 17th century, according to accounts here, and the feudal Tokugawa shogunate government established outposts there. An 1855 treaty with Russia shows the islands as part of Japan.

The Soviet Union maintains the islands are part of the Kuriles chain, which were awarded to them in the Yalta agreement, and there is nothing more to discuss.

The Japanese say that historically the term Kuriles has applied only to islands farther north of the disputed ones.

Few analysts here see any hope that Japan will prevail. The current Soviet-U.S. confrontation may have given the islands new military importance in Moscow's eyes, as they afford Soviet forces a commanding view over every entrance to the Sea of Okhotsk.

Still, Moscow could probably make important capital in Japan simply by acknowledging that the issue exists and agreeing to discuss it at some future date.