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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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)