Kurile Islands

Relief map of Kurile Islands

The Kurile Islands are a typical island arc extending 700 miles from northeast Hokkaido to the Kamchatka Peninsula, with 45 active or dormant volcanoes. The total land area is about 6000 square miles (15,500 km2). The islands have a wretched climate, with low temperatures, heavy winds and rain, and frequent fog, and were sparsely inhabited in 1941.

Japan had controlled the southern Kuriles from ancient times, and she acquired the northern Kuriles from Russia in exchange for Sakhalin in 1875. The Japanese subsequently administered the islands as Chishima Prefecture. Though the islands themselves are barren and devoid of resources, the surrounding waters support abundant marine life, and Japan established a major base at Paramushiro and a smaller base at Matsuwa. A heavy artillery fortress regiment was also stationed in the island chain. The Pearl Harbor Attack Force assembled at Hittokapu Bay because of its isolation.

Russia seized the Kuriles in the days following the cease-fire of August 15, 1945. There was considerable resistance by the Japanese in the Paramushiro area, but they were disarmed by nightfall on 223 August. Japanese forces in the central Kuriles had ceased resistance by 29 August, and the southern Kuriles were taken on 28 August without resistance. The United States protested this violation of the cease-fire on behalf of Japan, but Russia ignored the protest and the U.S. did not press the point. Truman's ignorance of the history of the Kuriles, in particular his mistaken impression that the islands had been awarded to Japan after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, seems to have contributed to this state of affairs.

The Treaty of San Francisco awarded Russia permanent possession of the islands. However, the text of the treaty can be read as being ambiguous about the status of the lower Kuriles (which Russia had never controlled) and this remains a territorial dispute between Japan and Russia today.


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