(Partial) History of the Kuril Islands

from 'The Kuril Islands - Russo-Japanese Frontiers In The Pacific' by John J. Stephan , Clarendon Press , Oxford , © 1974 , ISBN 0 19 821563 0

NOTE - This resume follows the course of the book's narrative and thus may not always represent a chronological framework ...

I have added my own notes, comments, clarifications and questions in places, though mainly at the end.


NB Great Britain and France claimed the Kuril Islands in a virtually forgotten episode of the Crimean War (see later for details)

Quick History

1855 Treaty of Shimoda Japan and Russia agreed to divide the arc between Iturup and Urup , the Japanese taking the Southern and the Russians the Northern portion .

1875 Treaty of St. Petersburg Russia abandoned all claims to the Kuril Islands in return for assuming Japan's rights to Sakhalin

1945 Soviet conquest and annexation of the Kuril Islands


Between 1875 and 1945 the entire arc constituted an integral part of the Japanese homeland , as opposed to S. Sakhalin which after 1905 was administered as a colonial possession .

As long as Japan possessed the Kurils , Russia's posture in the Far East suffered serious disabilities . The chain not only isolated Kamchatka and Chukutskii from the Maritime Provinces but denied Vladivostock-based ships unrestricted access to the Pacific .

In acquiring the Kurils and S Sakhalin in 1945 the Soviet Union gained a more advantageous geographical base from which to play a major role in the Pacific basin .

Kurils were viewed in Japan as her 'northern territories'

For nearly 2 centuries the Japanese had thought of the Kurils as an avenue of Russia's Southward expansion.


Ainu names for the Kuril Islands -


Japanese terms

Rakkoshima sea otter isles
Ezo ga Chishima where 'ezo' refers generically to 'unidentified barbarians' and 'chishima' means 'thousand islands' (the Japanese name today for the Kurils)


So , Iturup , Kunashir , Shikotan and the Haboma Islands off the North of Hokkaido were Japanese from 1855's Treaty of Shimoda

The others were Japanese from 1875's Treaty of St Petersburg
   - Simushir , Urup , Brat Chirpoev , Chirpoi , Broutona , Ketoi , Ushishir , Rasshua , Matua , Raikoke , Lovushki , Shiashkotan , Ekarma , Chirinkotan , Kharimkotan , Onekotan , Makanrushi , Paramushir , Alaid and Shumshu (which is the island most near Cape Lopatka of Kamchatka)


1821 Tsar Alexander I's ukase (decree) determined/identified Russia's territorial claims , being from the South cape of Urup Northwards

1822 St Petersburg dispatched the first permanent naval squadron to the Pacific to enforce the Tsar's decree . Its flagship , the frigate Apollon , is commonly seen as the ancestor to the Pacific Fleet

Note - The Tsar's decree came as a result of American and British whaling and other commercial expeditions into the Sea of Okhotsk


1844 Captain Gennadi Nevelskoi 'discovered' (as far as Russia was concerned ; Japan already knew it) 'Sakhalin's insularity' (i.e. it was not attached to the mainland) and revealed that the Amur River , hitherto regarded as having no navigable outlet to the sea , was a potentially valuable artery connecting Siberia to the Pacific

1854 With the nod of Tsar Nikolai I , the dynamic governor-general of Eastern Siberia , Count Nikolai Muraviev , blithely disregarded the Treaty of Nerchinsk (signed with China 1689) and sent troops and settlers into the Amur basin . He also occupied Sakhalin

This was a mix of predatory expansion and defensive considerations (against British and American incursions/presence)

Between 1853 and 1855 occurred Admiral Evfimii Putiatin's expeditions to Japan. These had 3 objectives -

(Putiatin's 2nd Nagasaki visit occurred between 3rd January and 5th February 1854)

October 1854 Putiatin returned to resume negotiations at Shimoda

The Crimean War had broken out 28th March 1854 . Powerful Anglo-French squadrons were prowling the Seas of Okhotsk and Japan in a stubborn search for Russian warships and merchantmen.

Putatin was obliged to conduct negotiations with one eye on the horizon lest Anglo-French forces discovered his whereabouts.

Worse , a tidal wave devastated his flagship leaving the Russians stranded on alien soil.

Treaty of Shimoda ; 7th February 1855

Demarcation of the frontier in the Kurils between Iturup and Urup
Sakhalin was declared a joint Russo-Japanese possession ; its final disposition was left to a future settlement


Embarrassing gaffes and costly fiascos of the Anglo-French attacks in the Far East during the Crimean War -



1862 , 1867 Japan pressed its rights by appeals to St Petersburg
1869/70 Japan proposed arbitration by the United States , again unsuccessfully

Each (Russia and Japan) offered to buy out the other's rights to the island
Each sent troops to rub shoulders on disputed acreage

1866 Russia offered to give up Urup and 3 other islands in return for Sakhalin

1870s Japan could hardly afford a showdown with Russia

7th May 1875 Treaty of St Petersburg
   Signed by Admiral Enomoto Buyo
   and Prince Aleksandr Gorchakov
Russia acquired Sakhalin
Japan acquired the Kuril Islands from Urup to Shumshu and commercial privileges in the Sea of Okhotsk's littoral

Some Japanese viewed the cession of Sakhalin for the Northern Kuril Islands as an exchange of Japanese territory for Japanese territory

Note -
   1871 Japan annexed the Ryukyu Archipelago
   1875 Japan annexed the Ogasawara Islands
   1874 Japan's expedition against Formosa


Japan generally administered the Kuril Islands as part of Hokkaido

1873 Hokkaido Colonial Office acted against poaching by establishing observation posts on Iturup .

Shortly thereafter Tokyo authorised the commissioning of a gunboat to patrol Kurilian waters

The Foreign Ministry declared Japan's territorial waters to extend 12 km from shore


(Today there are seal rookeries on Raikoke , Antsiferov , Lovushko , Svedniova)



When the Japanese took over the North part of the Kurils in 1875 they found an aboriginal people who had lived under Russian rule for a century . They spoke and dressed like Russians and adorned their pit dwellings with portraits of the tsar and Virgin Mary , and gave every appearance of professing the Orthodox faith ; they even drank and swore like Russians .


6th June 1904
Gunji (pioneer settler of Shumshu) decided to join the Russo-Japanese War and launch an invasion of Kamchatka . From a miniature armada of trawlers 100 men placed the fishing village of Ozernoe under martial law .

A detachment of Russian infantry marched from Petropavlosk to Ozernoe and the lieutenant and his companions spent the duration of the war in a local blockhouse .


Treaty of Portsmouth 1905

Japan gained South Sakhalin

Awarded Japan extensive fishing rights along both coasts of Kamchatka = resulted in the remarkable growth of Japan's Northern Pacific fishing operations during the next 35 years

(In some quarters Gunji's 'expedition' plus a letter he smuggled out of prison to the negotiators in America are credited with raising the profile of the fishing question in the Northern waters and ensuring that gains in this respect were incorporated in the Treaty)


The strategic importance of the Kurils achieved new significance after the middle of the 19th century because of :

  1. American expansion in the Pacific
  2. Russian absorption of the Amur-Maritime region and penetration of Manchuria
  3. Japan's deepening involvement on the Asian continent and in the Pacific

The purchase of Alaska and the Aleutians in 1867 by the U.S.A. (from Russia) advanced the United States to within 1000 km of Shumshu

The acquisition of the Northern Kurils in 1875 completed Japan's enclosure of the Sea of Okhotsk and cut Russia's Siberian coastline into two segments at Cape Lopaka (S. Kamchatka) . Ships from Vladivostock were obliged to negotiate Japanese-controlled straits to reach the Pacific and even local routes around Kamchatka led through one of the narrow apertures of the Kuril chain .

The Kurils were at a junction of American , Russian and Japanese territory

1882 Japan dispatched a gunboat to Nemuro (N. Hokkaido ; was this the same act mentioned before ?)

During the Russo-Japanese War the Imperial Japanese Navy posted temporary lookouts along the arc.


Russian and Japanese place-names in the Kuril Islands

Russian Japanese
Antsiferova Shirinki
Anuchina Akiyuri
Atlasova (Alaid) Araito
Avos Abosu
Brat Chirpoev Minami-jima
Broutona Buroton
Chiornye Bratia Chirihoi
Chirinkotan Chirinkotan
Chirpoi Kita-jima
Ekarma Ekaruma
Iturup Etorofu
Iurii Yuri
Ketoi Ketoi
Kharimkotan Harimukotan
Kunashir Kunashiri
Kurilskie ostrova Chishima retto
Lovushki Mushiru retsugan
Makanrushi Makanru
Malaia Kkurilskaia griada Hobomai shoto & Shikotan
Matua Matsuwa
Onekotan Onnekotan
Paramushir Paramushiro
Polonskogo Taraku
Raikoke Raikoke
Rasshua Rasuwa (or Rashowa)
Shiashkotan Shasukotan
Shikotan Shikotan
Shumshu Shimushu
Simushir Shimushiru
Tanfileva Suisho-to
Urup Uruppu
Ushishir Ushishiru (or Ushichi)
Zelionyi Shibotsu



1. Treaty of Shimoda (7th February 1855)

Article II

Henceforth the boundaries between Russia and Japan will pass between the islands of Etorofu (Iturup) and Uruppu (Urup) . The whole island of Etorofu belongs to Japan and the whole island of Uruppu and the other Kuril Islands to the North constitute possessions of Russia . As regards the island Karafuto (Sakhalin) , it remains unpartitioned between Russia and Japan , as has been the case up to this time .

2. Treaty of St. Petersburg (7th May 1875)

Article II

In exchange for the cession to Russia of the rights on the island of Sakhalin , stipulated in the first article , His Majesty the Emperor of all the Russias , for Himself and His descendants , cedes to His Majesty the Emperor of Japan the group of the Kuril Islands which he possesses at present , together with all the rights of sovereignty appertaining to this possession , so that henceforth the said group of Kuril Islands shall belong to the Empire of Japan . This group comprises the following eighteen islands : 1) Shimushu , 2) Araido , 3) Paramushiru , 4) Mmakanrushi , 5) Onekotan , 6) Harumukotan , 7) Ekaruma , 8) Shasukotan , 9) Mushiru , 10) Rraikoke , 11) Matsuwa , 12) Rashuwa , 13) Suride and Ushishiru , 14) Ketoi , 15) Shimushiru , 16) Buroton , 17) Cherupoi and Buratto Cherupoefu (Chirihoi or Chiornye Bratia) , 18) Uuruppu , so that the boundary between the Empires of Russia and Japan in these areas shall pass through the Strait between Cape Lopatka of the peninsular of Kamchatka and the island of Shimushu .

Article V

The residents of the territories ceded from one and the other , the Russian and Japanese subjects , may retain their nationality and return to their respective countries ; but if they prefer to remain in the ceded territories , they shall be allowed to stay and shall receive protection in the full exercise of their industry , their right of property and religion , on the same footing as the nationals , provided that they submit to the laws and jurisdiction of the country to which the possession of the respective territories passes .

3. Supplementary Article to the Sakhalin-Kuril Islands Exchange
The Treaty of Tokyo (22nd August 1875)

a) The inhabitants of the territories ceded from one and the other , the Russian and Japanese subjects , who desire to remain domiciled in the localities which they occupy at present , shall be maintained in the full exercise of their industries. They shall retain the right of fishery and hunting within the limits belonging to them and shall be exempted from any tax on their respective industries for the rest of their life .

b) The Japanese subjects who will remain on the island of Sakhalin and the Russian subjects who will remain on the Kuril Islands shall be maintained and protected in the full exercise of their present right of property . Certificates shall be given to them , confirming their right of usufruct and ownership of the immovable properties in their possession .

c) A full and perfect freedom of religion is accorded to the Japanese subjects residing on the island of Sakhalin , as well as to the Russian subjects remaining on the Kuril Islands . The Churches , temples and cemeteries shall be respected .

d) The aborigines of Sakhalin as well as of the Kurils shall not enjoy the right to remain domiciled in the localities which they now occupy and at the same time to keep their present subjection . If they desire to remain subject to their present Government they must leave their domicile and go to the territory belonging to their Sovereign ; if they wish to remain domiciled in the localities which they occupy at present , they must change their subjection . They shall be given , however , a period of three years from the date of their notification of this supplementary treaty for making a decision on this matter . During these three years , they shall maintain the right of fishery , hunting and any other industry which they have been engaged in until this day , on the same conditions as regards privileges and obligations which have existed for them until now on the island of Sakhalin and on the Kuril Islands , but during all this time they shall be subject to local laws and regulations . At the expiration of this term , the aborigines who are domiciled in the territories reciprocally ceded , shall become the subjects of the Government , to which the ownership of the territory will pass.

e) A full and perfect freedom of religion is accorded to all the aborigines of the island of Sakhalin and of the Kuril Islands . The temples and the cemeteries shall be respected .


Note - In practice the Japanese desired that the Ainu population of the Northern Kurils reside in the Southernmost islands closer to Japan and removed the population to a readymade village there . However , a mixture of poor agricultural conditions and melancholy resulted in a rapid decline in population. The Ainu were also obliged to adopt Japanese surnames , although amongst themselves they retained their Russified names .


I've decided to put the additional information here at the end rather than in the main body of the text , because I am not sure how some of the details fit in . I will highlight the apparent discrepancies as I go along -


Grey Wolf (1998 and 2010)