Kuril Islands

Kuril Islands

[koor-il, koo-reel]
Kuril Islands or Kuriles, 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 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.

The Kuril Islands (or /ˈkjuˈriˈl/; Кури́льские острова́ , Kuril'skie ostrova) or Kurile Islands in Russia's Sakhalin Oblast region, is a volcanic archipelago that stretches approximately 1,300 km (700 miles) northeast from Hokkaidō, Japan, to Kamchatka, Russia, separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the North Pacific Ocean. There are 56 islands in total and many more minor rocks.


The Kuril Islands are known in Japanese as the Chishima Islands (Kanji: 千島列島 / Hepburn Romaji: Chishima Rettō , literally, Thousand Islands Archipelago), also known as the Kuriru Islands (Kanji: クリル列島 / Hepburn Romaji: Kuriru Rettō , literally, Kuril Archipelago). The name Kuril originates from the autonym of the aboriginal Ainu, the islands' original inhabitants: "kur", meaning man. It may also be related to names for other islands that have traditionally been inhabited by the Ainu people, such as Kuyi or Kuye for Sakhalin and Kai for Hokkaidō.


The Kuril Islands form part of the ring of tectonic instability encircling the Pacific ocean referred to as the Ring of Fire. The islands themselves are summits of stratovolcanoes that are a direct result of the subduction of the Pacific Plate under the Okhotsk Plate, which forms the Kuril Trench some 200 km east of the islands. The chain has around 100 volcanoes, some 40 of which are active, and many hot springs and fumaroles. There is frequent seismic activity, including an earthquake of magnitude 8.3 recorded on November 15, 2006, which resulted in tsunami waves up to 5 ft reaching the California coast.

The climate on the islands is generally severe, with long, cold, stormy winters and short and notoriously foggy summers. The average annual precipitation is 30–40 inches (760–1,000 mm), most of which falls as snow.

The chain ranges from temperate to sub-Arctic climate types, and the vegatative cover consequently ranges from tundra in the north to dense spruce and larch forests on the larger southern islands. The highest elevations on the island are Alaid volcano (highest point 2339 m) on Atlasov Island at the northern end of the chain and Tyatya volcano (1819 m) on Kunashir Island at the southern end.

Landscape types and habitats on the island include many kinds of beach and rocky shores, cliffs, wide rivers and fast gravelly streams, forests, grasslands, alpine tundra, crater lakes and peat bogs. The soils are generally productive, due to the periodic influxes of volcanic ash and, in certain places, due to significant enrichment by seabird guano. However, many of the steep, unconsolidated slopes are susceptible to landslides and newer volcanic activity can entirely denude a landscape.

Marine ecology

Due to their location along the Pacific shelf edge and the confluence of Okhotsk Sea gyre and the southward Oyashio current, the waters around the Kuril islands are among the most productive in the North Pacific, supporting a wide range and high abundance of marine life.

Invertebrates: Extensive kelp beds surrounding almost every island provide crucial habitat for sea urchins, various mollusks and countless other invertebrates and their associated predators. Many species of squid provide a principle component of the diet of many of the smaller marine mammals and birds along the chain.

Fish: Further offshore, walleye pollock, Pacific cod, several species of flatfish are of the greatest commercial importance. During the 1980s, migratory Japanese sardine was one of the most abundant fish in the summer and the main commercial species, but the fishery collapsed and by 1993 no sardines were reported caught leading to significant economic contraction in the few settlements on the islands. Several salmon species, notably pink and sockeye, spawn on some of the larger islands.

Pinnipeds: The Kuril islands are home to two species of Eared Seal, the Steller Sea Lion and northern fur seal, both of which aggregate on several smaller islands along the chain in the summer to form several of the largest reproductive rookeries in Russia. A distinct Kuril island subspecies of the Common Seal (Phoca vitulina stejnegeri) and Largha are also abundant.

Pinnipeds were a significant object of harvest for the indigenous populations of the Kuril islands, both for food and materials such as skin and bone. The long term fluctuations in the range and distribution of human settlements along the Kuril island presumably tracked the pinniped ranges. In historical times, fur seals were heavily exploited for their fur in the 19th and early 20th centuries and several of the largest reproductive rookeries, as on Raykoke island, were extirpated. In contrast, commercial harvest of the true seals and Steller Sea Lions has been relatively insignificant on the Kuril islands proper. Since the 1960s there has been essentially no additional harvest and the pinniped populations in the Kuril islands appear to be fairly healthy and in some cases expanding. The notable exception is the now extinct Japanese Sea lion which was known to occasionally haul out on the Kuril islands.

Sea Otters were exploited very heavily for their pelts in the 19th century. Indeed, the pursuit of the valuable otter pelts drove the expansion of the Russians onto the islands and much of the Japanese interest. Their numbers consequently dwindled rapidly. A near total ban on harvest since the mid 20th century has allowed the species to recover and they are now reasonably abundant throughout the chain.

Cetaceans: The most abundant cetaceans include Orcas, harbor and Dall's Porpoises. Baird's and Cuvier's Beaked Whales, Minke Whales, Fin Whales, and Sperm Whales are also observed.

Seabirds: The Kuril islands are home to many millions of seabirds, including Northern Fulmars, Tufted Puffins, Murres, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Auklets, Petrels, Gulls, Cormorants. On many of the smaller islands in summer, where terrestrial predators are absent, virtually every possibly hummock, cliff niche or underneath of boulder is occupied by a nesting bird.

Terrestrial ecology

The composition of terrestrial species on the Kuril islands is dominated by Asian mainland taxa via migration from Hokkaido and Sakhalin Islands and by Kamchatkan taxa from the North. While highly diverse, there is a relatively low level of endemism.

Because of the generally smaller size and isolation of the central islands, few major terrestrial mammals have colonized these, though red and arctic foxes were introduced for the sake of the fur trade in the 1880s. The bulk of the terrestrial mammal biomass is taken up by rodents, many introduced in historical times. The largest southernmost and northernmost islands are inhabited by brown bear, foxes, martens. Some species of deer are found on the more southerly islands. It is claimed that a wild cat, the Kurilian Bobtail originates from the Kuril Islands. The bobtail is due to the mutation of a dominant gene. The cat has been domesticated and exported to nearby Russia and bred there, becoming a popular domestic cat.

Among terrestrial birds, ravens, peregrine falcons, some wrens and wagtails are common.


The Kuril Islands first came under nominal Japanese administration in the Edo period of Japan, in the form of claims by the Matsumae clan. It is claimed that the Japanese knew of the northern islands 370 years ago. Trade between these islands and Ezo (Hokkaidō) existed long before then. On "Shōhō Onkuko Ezu", a map of Japan made by the Tokugawa shogunate, in 1644, there are 39 large and small islands shown northeast of the Shiretoko peninsula and Cape Nosappu.

Russia began to advance into the Kurils in the early 18th century. Although the Russians often sent expedition parties for research and hunted sea otters, they never went south of Urup island.

Russians had a settlement on Iturup in the 18th century. This was because the Tokugawa shogunate controlled islands south of Iturup and had guards stationed on those islands to prevent incursions by foreigners.

In 1811, Russian Captain Vasily Golovnin and his crew, who stopped at Kunashir during their hydrographic survey, were captured by retainers of the Nambu clan, and sent to the Matsumae authorities. Because a Japanese trader, Takadaya Kahei, was also captured by a Russian vessel near Kunashir, Japan and Russia entered into negotiations to establish the border between the two countries.

The Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation was concluded in 1855, and the border was established between Iturup and Urup. This border confirmed that Japanese territory stretched south from Iturup and Russian territory stretched north of Urup. Sakhalin remained a place where people from both countries could live. The Treaty of Saint Petersburg in 1875 resulted in Japan relinquishing all rights over Sakhalin in exchange for Russia ceding all of the Kuril Islands to Japan.

During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, Gunji, a retired Japanese military man and local settler in Shumshu, led an invading party to the Kamchatka coast. Russia sent reinforcements to the area to capture and intern this group. After the war was over, Japan received fishing rights in Russian waters as part of the Russo-Japanese fisheries agreement until 1945.

During their armed intervention in Siberia 1918–1925, Japanese forces from the northern Kurils, along with United States and European forces, occupied southern Kamchatka. Japanese vessels made naval strikes against Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

The Soviet Union reclaimed southern Sakhalin and the Kuril islands by force at the end of World War II (see Treaty of San Francisco), but Japan maintains a claim to the four southernmost islands of Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan, and the Habomai rocks, together called the Northern Territories (see Kuril Islands dispute).

Japanese Administration in the Kuril Archipelago

In 1869, the Meiji government established the Colonization Commission in Sapporo to aid in the development of the northern area. Ezo was renamed Hokkaidō and Kita Ezo later received the name of Karafuto. Eleven provinces and 86 districts were founded by Meiji government and were put under the control of feudal clans. Because the Meiji government could not sufficiently cope with Russians moving to south Sakhalin, Japan negotiated with Russia over control of the Kuril Islands, resulting in the Treaty of Saint Petersburg that ceded the eighteen islands north of Uruppu to Japan and all of Sakhalin to Russia.

Road networks and post offices were established on Kunashiri and Etorofu. Life on the islands became more stable when a regular sea route connecting islands with Hokkaidō was opened and a telegraphic system began. At the end of the Taishō period, towns and villages were organized in the northern territories and village offices were established on each island. The Habomai island were all part of Habomai Village for example. In other cases the town and village system was not adopted on islands north of Uruppu, which were under direct control of the Nemuro Subprefectural office of the Hokkaidō government.

Each village had a district forestry system, a marine product examination center, salmon hatchery, post office, police station, elementary school, Shinto temple, and other public facilities. In 1930, 8,300 people lived on Kunashiri island and 6,000 on Etorofu island, and most of them were engaged in coastal and high sea fishing.

There were 17,291 Japanese islanders on the Kurils.

Kuril during World War II

  • Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku ordered the meeting of the Imperial Japanese Navy Strike force for the Hawaii Operation (Pearl Harbor Attack), during November 22, 1941 in Tankan or Hittokappu Bay, in Etorofu Island, South Kurils. The territory was chosen for its sparse population, lack of foreigners, and constant fog coverage. The Admiral ordered the move to Hawaii on the morning of November 26.
  • During July 10, 1943, occurred the first bombardment against Shumushu and Paramushiro Japanese bases. From Alexai airfield 8 B-25 Mitchell from 77th Bomber Squadron took off led by Capt. James L. Hudelson. This mission struck Paramushiro bases principally.
  • Another mission, was flown during September 11, 1943, when Eleventh Air Force dispatched eight B-24 Liberators and 12 B-25s. But now the Japanese were alert and reinforced their defenses. 74 crew members in three B-24s and seven B-25 failed to return. Twenty two men were killed in action, one taken prisoner and 51 interned in Kamchatka, Russia.
  • 11th Air Force implemented other bombing mission against northern Kurils in February 5, 1944, when envoyed six B-24 from 404th Bomber Squadron and 16 P-38 from 54th Fighter Squadron.
  • Japanese report Matsuwa military installations were subject of American air strikes between 1943–44.
  • The Americans' "Operation Wedlock", diverted Japanese attention north and misled them about U.S. strategy in the Pacific. The plan included air strikes by USAAF and US Navy Bombers and U.S. Navy shore bombardment and submarine operations. Japanese increased their garrison in north Kurils from 8,000 in 1943 to 41,000 in 1944 and maintained more than 400 aircraft in Kurils and Hokkaidō area in anticipation that the Americans might invade from Alaska.
  • Americans planners had briefly contemplated an invasion of northern Japan from Aleutians during fall of 1943, but rejected that idea as too risky and impractical. They considered the use of Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, on Amchitka and Shemya Bases, but rejected that idea too. U.S. military maintained interest in these plans when they ordered the expansion of bases in the western Aleutians, and major construction began on Shemya. In 1945, plans were put on the shelf for a possible invasion of Japan via the Northern route.
  • In August 18–31, Soviet forces invaded the North and South Kurils. The entire Japanese civilian population of roughly 17,000 was expelled until 1946.

    • Between August 24 and September 4 1945, the Eleventh Air Force of the United States Air Force sent two B-24's on reconnaissance missions over North Kuril Islands with intention to take photos of the Soviet occupation in the area. Soviet fighters intercepted and forced them away, a foretaste of the Cold war that lay ahead.

    Current Situation and the Economy

    Today, roughly 16,800 people (ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Tatars, Koreans, Nivkhs, Oroch, and Ainu) inhabit the Kuril Islands. About half of the population lives below the poverty line. Fishing is the primary occupation. The islands have strategic and economic value, in terms of fisheries and also mineral deposits of pyrite, sulfur, and various polymetallic ores.

    In recent times the economic rise of Russia has been seen on the Kurils too.

    The most visible sign of improvement is the new construction in infrastructure. Construction workers are now working vigorously to build a pier and a breakwater in Kitovy Bay, central Iturup, where barges are still a major means of transport sailing between the cove and ships anchored offshore. A new road has been carved through the woods near Kurilisk, the island's biggest village, going to the site of an airport scheduled to open in 2010 at a cost of 1.26 billion rubles (US$44 million).

    Gidrostroy, the Kurils' biggest business group with interests in fishing as well as construction and real estate, built its second fish processing factory on Iturup island in 2006, introducing a state-of-the-art conveyor system.

    To deal with a rise in the demand of electricity, the local government is also upgrading a state-run geothermal power plant at Mount Baransky, an active volcano, where steam and hot water were erupting.

    Atlasov Island

    The second northernmost, Atlasov Island (Araido to the Japanese), is an almost perfect volcanic cone rising sheer out of the sea, and has led to many Japanese eulogies in haiku, wood-block prints, etc., extolling its beauty, much as they do the more well-known Mt. Fuji.

    On January 13, 2007, an earthquake of magnitude 8.3 generated a tsunami alert.


    While in Russian sources the islands are mentioned for the first time in 1646, the earliest detailed information about them was provided by the explorer Vladimir Atlasov in 1697. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Kuril Islands were explored by Danila Antsiferov, I.Kozyrevsky, Ivan Yevreinov, Fyodor Luzhin, Martin Shpanberg, Adam Johann von Krusenstern, Vasily Golovnin, and Henry James Snow.

    From north to south, the main islands are (alternative names given in parentheses are mainly Japanese):

    North Kurils (Kita-chishima / 北千島)

    South Kurils (Minami-chishima / 南千島)

    • Iturup (Etorofu / 択捉島)
    • Kunashir (Kunashiri / 国後島)
    • Shikotan (色丹島)
    • Khabomai Rocks (Habomai Shotō / 歯舞諸島)
      • Moneron (Kaiba / 海馬島)
      • Polonskogo (Taraku / 多楽島)
      • Zelyoni (Shibotsu / 志発島)
      • Yuri (勇留島)
      • Anuchina (Akiyuri / 秋勇留島)
      • Kharkar (Harukaru / 春苅島)
      • Tanfilyeva (Suishō / 水晶島)
      • Signalny (Kaigara / 貝殻島)

    See also


    Further reading

    • Gorshkov, G. S. Volcanism and the Upper Mantle Investigations in the Kurile Island Arc. Monographs in geoscience. New York: Plenum Press, 1970. ISBN 0306304074
    • Krasheninnikov, Stepan Petrovich, and James Greive. The History of Kamtschatka and the Kurilski Islands, with the Countries Adjacent. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1963.
    • Rees, David. The Soviet Seizure of the Kuriles. New York: Praeger, 1985. ISBN 0030025524
    • Takahashi, Hideki, and Masahiro Ōhara. Biodiversity and Biogeography of the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin. Bulletin of the Hokkaido University Museum, no. 2-. Sapporo, Japan: Hokkaido University Museum, 2004.

    External links

Search another word or see Kuril Islandson Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature