Karafuto: How Japan Gained -and Lost – a Prefecture

Karafuto: How Japan Gained -and Lost – a Prefecture

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Karafuto lighthouse
The story of how, for a brief period of time, the island of Karafuto controlled by Russia became an official part of Japan.

Sakhalin island – or, as the Japanese called it, Karafuto – was once the scene of a complex trade network that linked its native peoples with the Chinese Empire and beyond. Then, two encroaching foreign powers appeared: The Russian Empire and Tokugawa Japan.

Karafuto became the nexus of the expanding boundaries of these two entities. As the two vied to bring Sakhalin into their sphere of influence, it was the native people of the island who paid the price. Eventually, after the Tokugawa samurai government fell to the modernizing Meiji imperialists, Japan ceded Sakhalin to the Russians. It became a prison island, a destination for exiles on the edge of Russian empire.

So how did it become – and then not become – a prefecture of Japan?

The Russo-Japanese War

Mikasa, a warship used in the Russo-Japanese war.
The Mikasa, a warship used in the Russo-Japanese War. Now on display in Mikasa Park in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. (Picture: yama1221 / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

The year was 1904.

The warmed relations between the empires of Russia and Japan had slowly reverted to a more wary coolness as the 19th century had progressed. When they had first met in the North Pacific, both countries were on a relatively even footing: new explorers of nebulous and mysterious lands near their expanding territories.

However a number of factors changed the political landscape. There was the intense weakening of the behemoth Qing China. Japan’s propulsive modernization throughout the early Meiji years and Russia’s development of military power in Siberia (particularly with their newly-founded naval center on the Pacific, Vladivostok) gave both these nations a boost.


As a result, Japan and Russia emerged as the two most powerful nations in the region. Both were now truly expansionist, colonialist powers in their own right. Both possessed strong militaries capable of power projection outside of their own domains.

Yet Russia still viewed Japan as a weak, non-industrialized, and more importantly non-Western power, unworthy of truly fearing. Rivalry for control over Chinese territory came naturally.

It was in this year, 1904, that things came to a dramatic head. The Russian Empire had slighted Japan by favoring China during negotiations following Japan’s victory in the first Sino-Japanese War. They added insult to injury by occupying large swathes of Manchuria and the Liaodong Peninsula – right when Japan was hoping to assert its dominance in those areas.

Further Russian expansionist actions towards Korea, which Japan considered in its sphere of influence, sealed the deal. In response, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Russian navy moored off Port Arthur, Manchuria. That was the start of the Russo-Japanese War.

Japan advances into the future Karafuto

As the war raged on, it became clear for all the world to see that something unprecedented was occurring. Of great embarrassment to Tsar Nicholas II and his military, Japan – an “inferior” Asian power – was actually winning. Unable to admit defeat or accept the political injury he would receive by acceding to Japanese overtures of a peace treaty, Nicholas ordered his troops to fight on.

The Battle of Tsushima in 1905 ended in a terrible Russian defeat. Japanese naval genius Togo Heihachiro (東郷平八郎) lead the Imperial Japanese Navy to complete victory over the pride of the Russians. Despite this, Nicholas still refused to end the conflict. Feeling only a direct threat on Russian Territory would end the war, Japan looked northward, to the island they had only decades ago ceded to Russia.

Japan advanced into Sakhalin.

Despite its extreme proximity to the Japanese home islands, the imperial Russian military had not stressed the defense of impoverished Sakhalin. It had a small garrison. However, almost all its so-called fighting men were in reality conscripted farmers, hunters, and prisoners of the katorga, the manual labor camp for exiles. The island was not prepared for what was about to come.

On July 7th, 1905, Japan invaded from the south and fought its way north, taking towns and suffering few casualties. On July 31st, shortly after a Japanese force landed near Alexandrovsk-Sakhalinski in northern Sakhalin, the remaining 5000 Russian troops surrendered. The Invasion of Sakhalin, the last battle of the Russo-Japanese War, ended quickly.

Karafuto: Japan’s New Prefecture

Log cabin on Sakhalin
A log cabin on the island of Sakhalin. (Picture: 旅人 / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

With the threat of revolution in the Moscow air following repeated embarrassing, even cataclysmic defeats in the East, Nicholas II finally gave in.

Delegates from the empires of Japan and Russia met in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to negotiate the peace terms under the auspices of President Theodore Roosevelt, who served as intermediary. Upon his suggestion, Russia ceded the southern half of Sakhalin below the 50th parallel in return for Japan requesting no monetary compensation for the war. Sakhalin, at least the southern half, had become Karafuto yet again.

Initially the central Tokyo government took direct control of their renewed territory. But by 1907 it had become its own entity – Karafuto Prefecture (樺太庁, Karafuto-cho, receiving the same designation as Hokkaido-cho, and not the more standard 県, ken).

Japan established a capitol at Otomari (大泊市, modern Korsakov). Within a year, it had moved this to the more suitable Vladimirovka, a small, formerly Russian town founded by political exiles. Japan gave this capitol a new Japanese name: Toyohara (豊原市). Toyohara would remain the prefectural capital for the rest of Karafuto’s history.

The change in Karafuto’s identity

Akin to similar inducements towards development in Hokkaido, the Karafuto government offered agricultural settlers the ownership of a “Russian-style” log cabin on twenty acres of land, provided that the settler was able to clear two-thirds of their assigned plot within five-years time. But just like on Hokkaido, these incentives were often not enough. Even desperately poor farmers didn’t want to move to a place reputed to be so inhumanly cold and foreboding.

Just like on Hokkaido, some did make the journey and attempted to make the northern island their new home. They retreated after the depravations of a single northern winter.

Many of those who came were indeed very impoverished. Groups from the consistently poor areas of Tohoku and Hokkaido made up a large portion of the settlers. (Settlers hailing from Hokkaido were thus part of a secondary colonial effort, as either they or their forebears would have been settlers in that formerly foreign land.) These underprivileged immigrant populations would continue to give both Hokkaido and Karafuto an image of uncouthness to many back in the metropolitan centers of Honshu and beyond.

The migratory nature of both those who came to live in Karafuto, and of the population centers that sprang up there, played a major role in the formation of settlers’ identities. They would come from somewhere in Hokkaido or the main islands and usually settle wherever resource extraction was lucrative.

Towns would boom as long as the resources remained. As settlers depleted them, the towns surrounding them would slowly atrophy. Their populations would migrate yet again to some other site of extraction, their erstwhile communities disappearing into the Sakhalin fog.

Karafuto: a difficult land

One of the first and most important efforts of the new Japanese administration was the construction of a railway line between the capital in the far south of the island, Toyohara, and the port of Maoka (真岡, modern Kholmsk).

Though not terribly far away from each other, the linking of the two spots by rail was extremely treacherous. The line would snake through the vast stretches of mountain range that separated the settlements. Japanese laborers willing to work on such a potentially deadly project were scarce. As a result, such the administration chose to make use of other sources of labor – some of it forced.

Tako, enslaved debtors, were one source, and were worked mercilessly – and if they tried to escape, they could be flogged or worse. Additionally, thousands of Chinese were recruited as seasonal laborers throughout the 20s. (Although authorities banned such recruitment on the mainland, they made an exceptionfor Karafuto.). Their prescience only ceased when Japanese laborers repeated the common anti-immigrant refrain that foreign migrants were “bringing wages down.”

Korean forced relocation

In the late 30s, bosses replaced cheap Chinese labor they had used for the most perilous of Karafuto development jobs. Instead, they used of laborers who they brought over from Japan’s fairly recent colonial acquisition of Korea.

Soon Koreans became the predominant minority on Karafuto. Their numbers far exceeded those of the native Ainu, Oroks, Nivkh, or the few Russians who remained in the territory. Their “recruitment” (or, often, forced relocation) only increased as conflicts on the Asian mainland saw the army draft Japanese men into military service. Karafut’s resources, mainly timber and coal, also became important for the war effort.

Some estimates put the number of Korean laborers brought to Karafuto during the last half of the Japanese era as as much as 50,000. Many of them suffered under terrible working conditions in coal mines or lumberyards.

By mid 1930s, the prefecture had a population upwards of 300,000 (10 times the number who had lived on the whole island in the Russian era), made up mostly of Japanese settlers but with about 6,000 Korean laborers, 2,000 native inhabitants, and 200 Russians. Ainu lived in the south, and as for the Nivkh and Oroks within the Japanese domain on the island, they lived close to the border with Russia, and thus, according to scholar Tessa Morris-Suzuki, their zone represented “the outermost limits of…colonial journey, the very edge of empire.”

For Karafuto’s settlers, a crisis of identity

Japanese on Karafuto put up a long campaign to see the prefecture officially recognized as part of the naichi (内地), truly part of the Japanese home islands – a wish that was granted only in the final days of Japanese control of the territory. While Karafuto was a cho, a prefecture, from the 1920s, it was also placed under the auspices of the Colonization Bureau (拓務局), putting it in a nebulous position of being within Japan and yet somehow treated in the same way as external Japanese colonies, such as those of Taiwan, Korea, and Nanyo (the South Pacific Mandate).

The Japanese on Karafuto were settlers in a foreign land who still insisted or wished to prove that their new home could be truly “Japanese.” This would prove to be a lasting (and now unresolved) identify issue for the settlers of Karafuto.

Morris-Suzuki has said that the settlers of the island were oft described as “people who have crossed the two salt water rivers.” They were doubly removed from the Japanese core. They had first crossed the Tsugaru straits to Hokkaido (still envisioned by many as something separate from mainland Japan) and had then further crossed the La Perouse Strait to reach even more distant Karafuto.

Attempts to escape the “frontier land” mentality

Part of the issue with identify remained the lack of settlers and travelers. To ameliorate this issue, the local Karafuto government actively tried to woo tourists to its lands. This occurred while they were attempting to create a unique identity for the island while still redefining it as wholly Japanese – not simply a colony – a process that was occurring alongside the similar efforts in Hokkaido, although that more southern island had a 30-year head start.

The Karafuto Local Research Association (樺太郷土研究会) was established in 1937 with all this in mind. Its new journal announced the “birth of northern history.” A year later, the central Karafuto government organized a song contest to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Japanese administration of the island. The hundreds of songs received from people on Karafuto and throughout the Japanese empire had lyrics celebrating the brave, stolid pioneering aspect of those who came to settle the island.

Despite this, Karafuto remained both a literal frontier land. It needed defense against the Russian-occupied North of the island. But it still sought to identify itself as truly Japanese. These two facets that remained at odds with each other throughout the prefecture’s existence.

Ainu, Nivkh, and Oroks – Subjugated Peoples of the Japanese Empire

Nivkh men in Karafuto/Sakhalin
Nivkh men on Sakhalin in the early 20th century. (Picture: Wikipedia)

The Japanese arrivals to Karafuto struggled with their identity and their harsh environs. Meanwhile, the the indigenous peoples of southern Sakhalin faced the brunt of the disruption brought by the new Japanese administration. Compounding this was the now-firm national boundary at the 50th parallel, separating them from their kin further north on the island.

All three native groups had long relied on trade networks between themselves and other peoples across the Tartar Straight on the Asian mainland to survive. Japanese control practically obliterated these connections.

The Sakhalin Ainu had been exiled to Japan in 1875 when the island was turned over to the Russians. They had returned to their homes under the Japanese, who forced them into small ghettos.

The Sakhalin Ainu only became official Japanese citizens on January 1st, 1933. In fact, until then, those who had avoided forced immigration to Hokkaido during the Russian era were regarded by Japanese law as Russians. They later fell into a strange zone of nebulous legal status.

Becoming citizens meant the Ainu legally had to start following the laws regarding mainland Ainu that established them as “former aborigines.” Even previous to this, authorities outlawed outward displays of their culture they deemed too “primitive” (such as the famed iyomante bear ceremony).

Despite this, some Ainu from Hokkaido tribes moved to Sakhalin during this period. Many sought a better life free from the restrictions placed on them by the local Japanese government in their homeland.

Contradictory whims

But just as in Hokkaido, the contradictory whims of the Japanese government towards their so-called “former aborigines” was clear to see.

Tourist departments used the presence of the Ainu (as well as that of the Oroks and Nivkh) as an exotic hook. They lured Japanese tourists to the island where one could see these alien people living amongst the Japanese.

The incorporation of these “foreign” indigenous peoples into the Japanese colonial project on Karafuto was an important symbol of the purported “civilizing aspect” of expansionism. That was a line the Japanese colonizers very much wanted to push.

Morris-Suzuki has pointed out how the visible “foreignness” of these indigenous peoples in their traditional attire, practicing their unique customs, was “important to colonialism because they dramatized the power of the empire by demonstrating the submission of foreign peoples to Japanese rule.” This extended to the Oroks and Nivkh who lived in the north of the prefecture, whose towns were advertised as exotic tourist destinations.

Japan forced the Nivkh, like the Ainu, into collective settlements in the 20s. However, they didn’t subject the Nivkh to the same sweeping legislation as the Ainu. The latter’s history of Japanese domination was much longer and more fraught with historical conflict. (Indeed, in the entire 40-year history of Karafuto Prefecture, the Nivkh and Oroks were never even legislated into becoming Japanese in any way.)

The Japanese allowed the Nivkh to maintain their traditional craftwork, which made use of reindeer fur woven into intricate patterns. They sold these to visiting Japanese tourists. The local tourism department gifted them with a stamp ironically featuring a reindeer and a traditional Nivkh summertime dwelling. Ironic because, as Morris-Suzuki points out, most Nivkh had by that time been forced into living in “uniform wooden housing.”

The entirety of Sakhalin Island, briefly wholly Japanese

The hardscrabble life of Karafuto Prefecture continued on through the decades.

1920 gave birth to brief change in the status-quo on the island: a brief Japanese invasion and occupation of the northern half of Sakhalin.

The Russian Empire fell to revolution in 1917. When the short-lived interim democratic government that replaced it had itself fallen less than a year later, the entirely of the Russian lands descended into civil war. The Red Army, made up of Bolshevik communists, fought against the ragtag White Russians.

Expansionists in the Japanese government saw this as a perfect opportunity to push into Siberia. They did so under the guise of assisting White Russian leaders in their fight against communism.

During this occupation of the Russian Far East, now known as the Siberian Intervention, a communist faction overran a Japanese outpost in the Amur region. They then participated in the brutal slaughter of hundreds of Japanese civilians and surrendered soldiers. This event became known as the Nikolayevsk Massacre (尼港事件).

In response, Japan invaded North Sakhalin.

Japan claimed that, as there was no reliable Russian government from whom to claim indemnities for the massacre, they must instead hold the northern half of Sakhalin as recompense. For five years, the entirety of the island was under Japanese control.

It was only in 1925, when Japan and the Soviet Union finally normalized relations, that Japan returned northern Sakhalin. The area of the island north of the 50th parallel was again Russian. However, as compensation for the murder of Japanese civilians in the Nikolayevsk Massacre, Russian granted Japan special oil rights within the Russian sector.

The final years of Karafuto Prefecture

Memorial for the Sansen Refugee Incident
A memorial in Hokkaido to those who died in aboard three ships of repatriates headed from Karafuto to Hokkaido. The ships were sunk by a Russian submarine during WWII. (Picture: bj_sozai / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

During the 1930s and 40s, Karafuto still occupied its uncertain position as both prefecture and settler colony. It grew in importance as the Japanese Empire expanded and made war throughout the Pacific. Karafuto coal and timber became especially valuable to the Japanese war effort. Mass invasions of China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific required enormous amounts of resources during the 2nd Sino-Japanese War and World War II.

These years of war began to sour for Japan. During this time, the Empire finally gave the settlers of Karafuto their much-desired recognition. In 1943, Japan officially proclaimed Karafuto part of the Japanese homeland.

The prefecture would only enjoy this status for two short years.

World War II comes to Karafuto

The Empire of Japan was embattled throughout East Asia and the Pacific. US forces closed in on the mainland via their island-hopping strategy.

Despite this, the Empire of Japan had managed to avoid a war on yet another front – all thanks to their 1941 nonaggression treaty with the Soviet Union. The land-border in Karafuto, where the Japanese and Soviets came face-to-face, remained tense, as did colonial border regions in Manchuria. And yet these borders remained blissfully peaceful. That enabled the Japanese to concentrate their forces elsewhere.

However, as the war moved towards its inevitable end, the Soviets began to have other thoughts. Why sit out the Pacific theater of the war? Isn’t this our opportunity to achieve centuries of Russian territorial ambitions in the North Pacific?

Allied leaders Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met with Soviet premier Joseph Stalin at their famed meeting in Yalta in 1945. They agreed that Sakhalin and the Kurils could become fully Soviet at the end of the war. The catch? The Soviets must finally enter the war against Japan. The Japanese territories would be a reward for the Soviets reneging on their neutrality treaty with Japan. This Allies kept this decision secret until after the war had ended. All parties feared that the Japanese might otherwise have invaded Siberia.

By late June 1945, American ships had penetrated the Japanese northern waters, disrupting important fishing in the Kurils and Karafuto needed by the starving Japanese Empire. In July, American ships bombarded Karafuto. An American submarine planted eight US soldiers on the island. They managed to evade Japanese defenses and subsequently blow up a Karafuto railway.

World War II had come to Karafuto Prefecture.

The Re-Taking of Sakhalin

Things only got worse for Japan. On April 9th, 1945, the Soviet Union informed Japan that it would be leaving their neutrality pact. As worrisome as this was, the announcement left the pact in tact for a period of a year, meaning the Japanese imagined they would only be fighting the Soviets in 1946 – and at that time, all signs pointed to the war lasting at least that long.

Then came the atomic bombs, and everything changed.

On August 9th, the same day as the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, the Soviet Union launched a ground invasion of Japan’s puppet state in Manchuria, routing the mighty Japanese Kwangtung Army. Japan, was shell-shocked by the mass destruction caused by the detonation a new mysterious weapon on its soil. And it was now also at war with the Soviet Union.

Japanese civilians stared fleeing flee Karafuto, terrified of the invasion they knew must soon come from the north of the island,. However, within days, the flood of refugees halted. A Soviet fleet had moved into the water around Sakhalin, blockading Karafuto and firing upon many civilian ships. Still, 100,000 Japanese had escaped to Hokkaido before the real violence started up.


On August 11th, the ground assault began.

The battle commenced at the 50th parallel, the delineating line between Soviet and Japanese territory. There, 20,000 Soviet troops supported by 100 tanks faced off against a vastly smaller force of Japanese defenders.

However, the Japanese held fast to their line, fighting in a fierce, even suicidal way. The Soviets had expected to bulldoze their way through to the southern ports of Karafuto, from whence they would launch an invasion of Hokkaido. The tenaciousness of Karafuto’s defenders startled them. For four days, the Soviet forces couldn’t make any headway.

The tables turned on August 15. Millions of Japan’s people were dead. 60% of its urban spaces had been firebombed into rubble most of its colonial holdings overrun. Now, it was also the victim of two atomic bombs strikes. Facing this loss and devastation, the Empire of Japan surrendered to the allied forces.

The main goal was now to avert direct invasion of their home islands. Imperial HQ contacted Karafuto headquarters with the order to halt all attacks and to begin discussing cease-fire terms with the Soviets. However, the 5th Army countermanded those orders and proclaimed that the fight would continue. They would Karafuto till the last man.

Nonetheless, the 3000 Japanese troops on the 50th parallel eventually surrendered. The Soviets advanced southward into the prefecture.

The fall of Karafuto Prefecture

The next day, a series of Soviet amphibious invasions commenced. Soviet forces landed at Toro Bay near the north of the prefecture and assaulted a Japanese garrison. Hundreds of Japanese defenders died and the Soviets occupied several surrounding towns.

Next, on the 20th, the Soviet Navy invaded the port of Maoka in the south, where they met fierce resistance. It took two days to capture the city, with thousands perishing. A few days later, on August 22nd, Soviet forces sunk a ferry fleeing Karafuto for Hokkaido. 1,700 civilians lost their lives.

August 25th marked the final day of the Invasion of Sakhalin. The Soviets landed in the old capital of Otomari, taking the garrison there without a fight. That same day, they were able to enter the prefectural capital at Toyohara, similarly without resistance.

Ten days after the Empire of Japan had surrendered, Karafuto Prefecture had fallen.

Echoes of the Lost Prefecture

Museum of Local Lore in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk
Despite a return to Russian control, vestiges of Japanese influence live on in Sakhalin. The Museum of Local Lore in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, for example, is housed in a building built by the Japanese government in 1905, and sports a distinctive Japanese architectural style. (Picture: Shutterstock)

Japan had lost the war. Karafuto, the 48th prefecture of Japan, was but one of many lost imperial conquests.

Yet, even in their defeat, the defenders of Karafuto had managed to do one thing of perhaps incalculable import. Seeing the fierce defense the Japanese put up in Karafuto, Joseph Stalin called off his planned invasion of Hokkaido. In this way, Japan’s most northern home island may have been spared a fate similar to that of North Korea.

100,000 civilians had managed to flee to Hokkaido, beyond the grasp of the Russians. However, the 300,000 who remained in occupied Karafuto were not so lucky. (Although even those refugees who managed to reach Hokkaido could expect a truly difficult set of years ahead of them).

Japan attempted to negotiate repatriation of its citizens in Soviet-occupied areas like Manchuria and Karafuto. However, the Soviet Union stalled. In Karafuto, the Soviets knew they would need the hundreds of thousands of Japanese as valuable manual labor. It would take time, after all, to recruit Russians to populate the harsh environment of their new territory in southern Sakhalin.

Karafuto becomes Sakhalin again

At first, the Soviets tried to convince the Japanese to stay on the island. However, very few were willing to live as citizens of the USSR. The Soviets subsequently arrested hundreds from among Karafuto’s highest level of society, including bankers, prefectural officials, and military men. They sent most of them to gulags in the Asian mainland.

The Soviets delayed repatriation of Japanese civilians for a year and a half. Finally, Russian migrants began arriving to replace them. Even then, the process was slow. The Soviets found excuses to keep the Japanese working on the island even longer. (“Bad weather” was an excuse used in 1948 to delay repatriations for many months.)

Some Japanese civilians were only able to leave Sakhalin as much as twenty years after the war. These included women who had married Korean laborers and whose citizenship was now unclear.

Even today, some Japanese remain. One aged Japanese resident of Sakhalin in the 1990s reported that the Soviets hadn’t allowed him to leave because they needed engine drivers.

An unhappy fate for the island’s indigenous peoples

The fate of the native peoples of Sakhalin, whose societies had been so disrupted time and again over the centuries by the imperial behemoths that surrounded them, was not a happy one.

The Soviets forced many Oroks to move to Hokkaido by the Soviets. This, despite a complete lack of historical connection to the island. Meanwhile, the Soviets learned of how the the Japanese military had trained some Nivkh during wartime to infiltrate the border with northern Sakhalin. They looked for reasons to arrest these men and deport them to labor camps.

This led to some Nivkh seeking to immigrate to Japan, where they would be free on Soviet harassment. The Soviets finally granted these requests in the mid 60s. Some Nivkh thus came to live near Abashiri in northern Hokkaido. As of the 1980s, there were some 50 Nivkh in the town, though what has become of them since is unknown.

The vast majority of Sakhalin Ainu, whose community had only been able to reform on their home island following Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War, were once again forced into exile on Hokkaido. These days a small number still exist in Sakhalin, while some other Ainu live on the Russian mainland near the Amur River and on Kamchatka.

Unlike other native peoples, the Sakhalin Ainu have not been able to register for special native rights within Russia. Most people of Ainu descent on Sakhalin do not register themselves as Ainu. Many have taken on Russian names and have disappeared into Russian society.

Korean laborers: Trapped in Sakhalin

Some Korean laborers had managed to escape the Soviet onslaught. However, the vast majority of Koreans who had not fled to Hokkaido wound up in a severely extended limbo.

The Soviets allowed the Japanese citizens stranded in Karafuto when they gained control to repatriate (albeit slowly) over the first decade of Soviet rule. They granted the Koreans no such right of return. The Soviets would soon hold half of the Korean Peninsula within their sphere of influence. They saw no reason to repatriate such an extensive work force when willing replacements would doubtless prove difficult to find.

For their part, Japanese authorities were seemingly uninterested in the fate of their former colonial charges. They had more pressing issues at hand, like repatriating the hundreds of thousands of Japanese nationals trapped behind Soviet lines in Manchuria). Meanwhile, the Americans were unwilling to press the Soviets given the two country’s tense confrontation over Korea.

Thus the Soviets forced the Korean laborers in Karafuto to stay on. Upon departing for Karafuto during the Japanese era, many of these Koreans had imagined a sojourn of a year or two. Instead, between the Japanese and the Soviets, their stay in Karafuto would end up consisting of most of their lives.

Most could only go “home” after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. And by then, they hadn’t seen their homeland for 50 years or more. Even today, more than 40,000 Koreans remain on Sakhalin. Thus do the aftereffects of wars long since fought and colonial lines scratched on pieces of paper live on, their victims often invisible and forgotten.

Epilogue: Japan and Sakhalin

Japan renounced all claims to Sakhalin in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. Unlike the neighboring Kuril Islands, another Ainu homeland, there has been no real public debate about ownership of Sakhalin since.

A few hardline rightwing irredentists aside, there has been no major push to try to reclaim Karafuto for Japan. For most Japanese, it has faded into history, just one more lost colony from a shameful period most try to forget. Its brief status as part of the Japanese homeland has been forgotten. The identity of the Karafuto settlers has been made and unmade. That’s especially true now that the majority of those who called the prefecture home have passed on.

The only hint of a persistent colonial memory regarding Karafuto comes, like such things so often do, from a cartographic anomaly. Japanese world maps must by law portray the southern Kuril Islands, which Japan still claims despite Russian administration, as being colored red like the “rest” of Japan.

There is no such law for Sakhalin. And yet, many Japanese mapmakers opt to leave south Sakhalin, from the 50th parallel on down, uncolored, a blank spot on the world map. It’s similar to how American maps often leave Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. No other former Japanese colony receives such treatment.

An island of hope?

Cold War tensions meant that, for some time Sakhalin and the Kurils represented a potentially explosive meeting point of Capitalism and Communism. American planes sometimes tangled with Soviet fighters in the sky over the imagined “MacArthur Line” that separated Soviet Space from Japanese space.

However, many things have changed in the past decades. The island is no longer the site of aggressive conflict between Russia and Japan that Sakhalin represented for hundreds of years It has become, in some ways, a place of hope and renewed relations between the two countries.

Hokkaido and Sakhalin, so close, are more economically intertwined. Flights between the two islands now occur on the regular. Ferries and shipping boats ply the La Pérouse strait, bringing people and good between the islands. Relations have become so friendly that both sides have major plans for a train tunnel under the waters of La Pérouse. At last, there will be a physical connection between the two landmasses of Hokkaido and Sakhalin.

The Hokkaido government has opened an office in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the capital city of Sakhalin Oblast that once went by the name of Toyohara. In 1998, Hokkaido prefectural governor Tatsuya Hori ventured to the city. There, he signed an agreement of economic and cultural ties between the Russian Oblast and Japan’s most northern prefecture.

In fact, this event marked the first time Governor Hori had returned to his place of birth during his adult life. He had been born in the former Karafuto Prefecture in 1935.

“Sakhalin and Hokkaido are very close”

Sakhalin and Hokkaido are so close that each island can be seen from the other by the naked eye. When we remove the weight of history and the imagined boundaries created by men in faraway imperial capitals, these ties seem completely natural.

“Karafuto” is no more. But Sakhalin remains, serving as a physical tie between Japan and Russia. It’s a marker for all that has come before, when the land was the home of the Nivkh, Oroks, and Ainu. The natural bonds caused by such geographic proximity remain clear to those who live in such lands.

As a Sakhalin governmental administrator back in 2006 put it so well, “Moscow and Tokyo are far away, while Sakhalin and Hokkaido are very close.”


Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. Northern Lights: The Making and Unmaking of Karafuto Identity. The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 60, No. 3. August, 2001.

Walker, Brett L. The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion, 1590-1800. University of California Press, 2001

Irish, Ann B. Hokkaido: A History of Ethnic Transition and Development on Japan’s Northern Island. McFarland, 2009. Print.

Akhil Sharma. Chekhov’s Beautiful Nonfiction. The New Yorker. February 2, 2015. 

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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