The Kurils form an archipelago of more than thirty mountainous islands situated in a curving line running north from Japanese Hokkaido to Russia's Kamchatka peninsula, enclosing the Sea of Okhotsk and occupying an area of 15,600 square kilometers. The Kurils have numerous lakes and rivers, with a harsh monsoon climate, and are highly seismic, with some thirty-five active volcanoes. Russians in search of furs first moved into the islands from Kamchatka early in the eighteenth century, thus coming into contact with the native Ainu and eventually with the Japanese, who were expanding northward. The 1855 Treaty of Shimoda divided the islands; those north of Iturup were ceded to Russia, while Japan controlled the four southern islands. In the 1875 Treaty of St. Petersburg, Japan ceded Sakhalin to Russia in exchange for the eighteen central and northern islands; the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth granted Japan sovereignty over southern Sakhalin and all neighboring islands. The USSR reoccupied the Kurils after World War II, and in 1948 expelled 17,000 Japanese inhabitants. Since then the southern four islands (Kunashiri, Shikotan, Iturup, and the Habomais group) have been disputed territory.
The Kuril islands are administered by Russian Sakhalin. Never large, the population declined to about 16,000 following a major earthquake in 1994. Some 3,500 border troops, far fewer than in Soviet times, remain to guard the territory. During the Soviet period the islands were considered a vital garrison outpost. The military valued the island chain's role in protecting the Sea of Okhotsk, where Soviet strategic submarines were located. The major industries are fish processing, fishing, and crabbing, much of which is illegal. Once pampered and highly paid by the Soviet government, the Kuril islanders were neglected by Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Of necessity, the inhabitants are developing closer ties with northern Japan.
See also: japan, relations with; russo-japanese war
Cobb, Charles E., Jr. (1996). "Storm Watch Over the Kurils." National Geographic 190(4):48–67.
Stephan, John J. (1974). The Kuril Islands: Russo-Japanese Frontier in the Pacific. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Charles E. Ziegler
Kuril Islands (kyŏŏr´ēl, kŏŏrēl´) or Kuriles (kyŏŏr´ēlz, kyŏŏrēlz´), Jap. Chishima-Retto, Rus. Kurilskiye Ostrova, island chain, c.6,020 sq mi (15,590 sq km), Sakhalin region, E Russia. They stretch c.775 mi (1,250 km) between S Kamchatka Peninsula and NE Hokkaido, Japan, and separate the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. There are 30 large and numerous small islands; Iturup is the largest. Atlasova volcano (7,674 ft/2,339 m) on Atlasova Island is the highest point of the chain. The islands are mainly of volcanic origin. Active volcanoes are present and earthquakes are frequent. The low temperature, high humidity, and persistent fog make the islands unpleasant for human habitation. There are, however, communities engaged in sulfur mining, hunting, and fishing. Significant deposits of petroleum, magnesium, titanium, and rhenium have been identified.
In the 18th cent. both Russians and Japanese claimed the islands (they are still known in Japan as the Northern Territories). In 1875, Japan gave up Sakhalin in return for Russian withdrawal from the Kuriles, and the Japanese held the islands until the end of World War II. The Yalta Conference ceded the islands to the USSR, and Soviet forces occupied the chain in Sept., 1945. Japan has challenged the Soviet (after 1991, Russian) right to the Kuriles, and demanded the return of the four southernmost islands, which had been treated as part of Hokkaido prior to World War II. The failure to resolve the impasse has been a major stumbling block in Russo-Japanese relations since the end of the war, leading at times to tensions.