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- For the political history of the sovereignty conflict, see Kuril Islands dispute.
The Kuril Islands IPA: [kʰʊˈɹɪl aɪ̯ləndz] (Russian: Кури́льские острова́ (/kuˈrʲilskiɪe əstrʌˈva/), Kuril'skie ostrova) or Kurile Islands in Russia's Sakhalin Oblast region, stretch 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.
The Kuril Islands are known in Japanese as the Chishima Islands (Kanji: 千島列島 / Hepburn Romaji: Chishima rettō /ʧiʃĭmaret:o:/, literally, Thousand Islands Archipelago), also known as the Kuriru Islands (Kanji: クリル列島 / Hepburn Romaji: Kuriru rettō /kŭrirŭretːoː/, literally, Kuril Archipelago). The name Kuril originates from the autonym of the aboriginal Ainu: "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 a volcanic island arc as a result of plate tectonics and are home to over 100 volcanoes, about 35 of which are active. The Kuril Trench is an oceanic trench that runs about 200 km east of the Kuril Islands. The islands themselves are summits of stratovolcanoes that rise from the seabed. There are frequent earthquakes.
The islands are renowned for their fogginess, but are rich in seaweed and marine life, such as fish and sea otters. The second northernmost, Atlasov Island (Oyakoba 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.
The Kuril Islands first came under 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. (see "The Kuril Islands", John J Stephan, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1974, pp. 50-56). 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. This was because the Edo Shogunate controlled islands south of Iturup and had guards stationed on those islands to prevent incursions by foreigners.
In 1811, Captain 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 seaman, Takataya Kahei, was also captured by a Russian vessel near Kunashir, Japan and Russia entered into negotiations to establish the border between the two countries (1813).
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. In 1875 (Treaty of Saint Petersburg) Japan relinquished all its rights in Sakhalin in exchange for Russian cession of all its rights in the Kuriles to Japan.
During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, 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 the South of Sakhalin and the Kuriles by force at the end of World War II (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 Kurile Archipelago
In 1869, the new, 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 new Meiji government could not sufficiently cope with Russians moving to south Sakhalin, the Treaty for exchange of Sakhalin for the Kuril Island was concluded in 1875 and 18 islands to the north of Uruppu, which had belonged to Russia, were transferred to Japan.
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 Taisho era, 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 Nemuro Subprefectural office of the Hokkaidō government.
Each village had a district forestry system, a marine product examination center, a salmon hatchery, a post office, a 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.
 Kuril during WW2
- 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 Bomb. Sqdn. 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 implement other bombing mission against northern Kurils in February 5, 1944, when envoyed six B-24 from 404th Bomber Sqdn. and 16 P-38 from 54th Fighter Sqdn.
- Japanese report why in 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. Plans were put on the shelf for a possible invasion of Japan via the Northern route in 1945.
- In August 18–31, Russian forces invaded the North and South Kurils.
- Eleventh Air Force, sent between August 24 and September 4, 1945, two B-24 in reconnaissance mission over North Kuril Islands to take photos of the Russian occupation in the area. Russian fighters intercepted and forced them away, a foretaste of the Cold war that lay ahead.
Today, roughly 30,000 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, according to the regional administration. 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.
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):
- Shumshu (Shimushu)
- Atlasov Island (Oyakoba, Alaid or Araito)
- Paramushir (Paramushiro or Poromushiri)
- Antsiferova (Shirinki)
- Makanrushi (Makanrushiri)
- Onekotan (Onnekotan)
- Kharimkotan (Kharimukotan, Harumokotan)
- Ekarma (Ekaruma)
- Shiashkotan (Shashukotan)
- Raikoke (Raykoke)
- Matua (Matsuwa)
- Rasshua (Rasuwa)
- Ushishir (Ushishiri or Ushichi)
- Ketoy (Ketoe or Ketoi)
- Simushir (Shimushiro or Shinshiru)
- Broutona (Buroton or Makanruru)
- Chirpoy (Chirinhoi)
- Brat Chirpoyev (Burato-Chiripoi)
- Urup (Uruppu)
- Iturup (Etorofu)
- Kunashir (Kunashiri)
- And the Lesser Kurils:
 See also
- Chishima Province
- Organization of Hokkai(North) Army
- Organization of Kita and Minami Fortresses
- Governor-General of Karafuto
- Political Division of Karafuto Province(1905-1945)
- Organization of Karafuto Fortress
- Evacuation of Karafuto and Kuriles
 External links
- Kuril Islands at Ocean Dots.com (includes space imagery)
- USGS Map showing location of Magnitude 8.3 Earthquake 46.616°N, 153.224°E Kuril Islands region, 2006 November 15 11:14:16 UTC