Karafuto: Japan’s Lost Prefecture

Karafuto: Japan’s Lost Prefecture

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

In my last article, I explored the first part of the history of Sakhalin island, the vast landmass that rises out of the mists directly north of Hokkaido. The land is home to three indigenous people groups: the dog-sled riding Nivkh; the reindeer-taming Oroks; and the Sakhalin branch of the Ainu people, whose homeland stretches into Hokkaido and the Kuril Islands. Sakhalin was once the scene of a complex trade network that linked these native peoples with the Chinese Empire and beyond.

Then, two encroaching foreign powers appeared: The Russian Empire and Tokugawa Japan. Sakhalin – or as the Japanese called it, Karafuto – became the nexus of the expanding boundaries of these two entities, and 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 had fallen to the modernizing Meiji imperialists, Sakhalin was ceded to the Russians. It became a prison island, a destination for exiles on the edge of Russian empire.

For some decades, that seemed to be what Sakhalin would remain.

The Russo-Japanese War

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, following 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), Japan and Russia had suddenly emerged as the two most powerful nations in the region. Both were now truly expansionist, colonialist powers in their own right, both possessing strong militaries capable of power projection outside of their own domains – and 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, and had 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. The Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Russian navy moored off Port Arthur, Manchuria. The Russo-Japanese War had begun.

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.

Even after the terrible Russian defeat in the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, where Japanese naval genius Togo Heihachiro (東郷平八郎) lead the Imperial Japanese Navy to complete victory over the pride of the Russian fleet, 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, but 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, had ended.

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). A capital was established at Otomari (大泊市, modern Korsakov), but within a year it had been moved to the more suitable Vladimirovka, a small, formerly Russian town that had been founded by political exiles. It was given a new Japanese name: Toyohara (豊原市). Toyohara would remain the prefectural capital for the rest of Karafuto’s history.

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 simply not enough to make even desperately poor farmers want to move to a place reputed to be so inhumanly cold and foreboding.

Just like on Hokkaido, some who did make the journey and who attempted to make the northern island their new home retreated after the depravations of a single northern winter. Many of those who came were indeed very impoverished, and groups from the consistently poor areas of Tohoku and Hokkaido made up a large portion of the settlers (settlers hailing from Hokkaido would thus be engaging in 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 then lucrative. Towns would boom as long as the resources remained, but as they became depleted the towns surrounding them would slowly atrophy, their populations migrating yet again to some other site of extraction, their erstwhile communities disappearing into the Sakhalin fog.

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, as the line would have to go through the vast stretches of mountain range that separated the settlements. Japanese labor willing to work on such a potentially deadly project was scarce, and as 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 such recruitment was banned on the mainland, Karafuto was made a special exception), and their prescience only ceased when Japanese laborers repeated the common anti-immigrant refrain that foreign migrants were “bringing wages down.”

In the late 30s, cheap Chinese labor used for the most perilous of Karafuto development jobs was replaced by that of laborers who were brought over from Japan’s fairly recent colonial acquisition of Korea. Soon Koreans became the predominant minority on Karafuto, their numbers far exceeding those of 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 Japanese men being drafted into military service, and as Karafuto resources, mainly timber and coal, became increasingly 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).

This conflict of identity faced by the Japanese on Karafuto, namely one between being settlers in a foreign land and yet still insisting or wishing to prove that their new home could be truly “Japanese,” 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,” meaning they were doubly removed from the Japanese core, for 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.

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, in need of defense against the Russian-occupied North of the island, while still seeking to identify itself as truly Japanese – 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)

While the Japanese arrivals to Karafuto struggled with their identity and their harsh environs, the lives of the indigenous peoples of southern Sakhalin continued to be disrupted and altered by the arrival of 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. These connections were practically obliterated by Japanese control. Sakhalin Ainu, many of whom had been exiled to Japan in 1875 when the island was turned over to the Russians, and had only been able to return to their homes upon the reestablishment of Japanese control, were forced into small ghettos. The Sakhalin Ainu only became official Japanese citizens on January 1st, 1933. In fact, until then those Sakhalin Ainu who had avoided forced immigration to Hokkaido during the Russian era were regarded by Japanese law as Russians themselves, and 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, outward displays of their culture deemed too “primitive” (such as the famed iyomante bear ceremony) were outlawed. Despite this, some Ainu from Hokkaido tribes moved to Sakhalin during this period, hoping for a better life free from the restrictions placed on them by the local Japanese government in their homeland.

But just as in Hokkaido, the contradictory whims of the Japanese government towards their so-called “former aborigines” was clear to see. The presence of the Ainu (as well as that of the Oroks and Nivkh) was used by tourist departments as an exotic hook to lure 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, something that 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.

The Nivkh, like the Ainu, were forced into collective settlements in the 20s, but were not subject to the same sweeping legislation as the Ainu, whose 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). They were allowed to maintain their traditional craftwork, which made use of reindeer fur woven into intricate patterns, which they then sold to visiting Japanese tourists – whom the local tourism department gifted with a stamp ironically featuring a reindeer and a traditional Nivkh summertime dwelling, for, 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 had fallen to revolution in 1917, and when the short-lived interim democratic government that replaced it had itself fallen less than a year later, the entirely of the Russian lands had descended into a horrifically bloody civil war. The Red Army, made up of Bolshevik communists, fought against the White Russians, a rag-tag agglomeration of anti-Bolshevik forces including royalists, democrats, and anyone who held a grudge against the communists.

Expansionists in the Japanese government saw this as a perfect opportunity to push into Siberia 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 and 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, and it was only in 1925, when Japan and the Soviet Union finally normalized relations, that northern Sakhalin was returned. The area of the island north of the 50th parallel was again Russian, but as compensation for the murder of Japanese civilians in the Nikolayevsk Massacre, Japan was granted special oil rights within the Russian sector of Sakhalin.

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 occupying its uncertain position as both prefecture and settler colony, 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 as mass invasions of China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific expended enormous amounts of resources during the 2nd Sino-Japanese War and World War II.

As these years of war began to truly go badly for Japan, the settlers of Karafuto were finally given their much-desired recognition by the Empire. In 1943, Karafuto was officially proclaimed part of the Japanese homeland. The prefecture would only enjoy this status for two short years.

Despite being embattled throughout East Asia and the Pacific and with US forces closing in on mainland Japan via their island-hopping strategy, the Empire of Japan had still 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, allowing the Japanese to concentrate their forces elsewhere. But as the war moved towards its inevitable end, the Soviets began to have other thoughts. Why sit out the Pacific theater of the war if there was an opportunity to finally achieve centuries of Russian territorial ambitions in the North Pacific?

At their famed meeting at Yalta in 1945, allied leaders Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill agreed with Soviet premier Joseph Stalin that Sakhalin and the Kurils could become fully Soviet at the end of the war – provided the Soviet finally entered the war against Japan. The Japanese territories would be a reward for the Soviets reneging on their neutrality treaty with Japan and joining in the allied efforts against them once the war in Europe was over. This decision was kept secret until after the war had ended for fear 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 and an American submarine planted eight US soldiers on the island who managed to evade Japanese defenses and subsequently blew 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, shell-shocked by the mass destruction caused by the detonation a new mysterious weapon on its soil, was now also at war with the Soviet Union.

Japanese civilians had begun to flee Karafuto, terrified of the invasion they knew must soon come from the north of the island, but within days the flood of refugees had been halted. A Soviet fleet had moved into the water around Sakhalin, blockading Karafuto and firing upon many civilian ships. Still, 100,000 Japanese had managed to escape 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; but as had happened in so many battles throughout the Pacific War where the Japanese were on the defense, 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, but the tenaciousness of Karafuto’s defenders startled them. For four days the Soviet forces were unable to make any headway.

But then, on August 15, with millions of its people dead, 60% of its urban spaces firebombed into rubble, most of its colonial holdings overrun, and now the victim of two atomic bombs, the Empire of Japan announced its surrender 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, but the 5th Army countermanded those orders and proclaimed that the fight would continue. Karafuto was to be defended till the last man. Nonetheless, the 3000 Japanese troops on the 50th parallel eventually surrendered. The Soviets advanced southward into the 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 moved on to occupy 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, a ferry fleeing Karafuto for Hokkaido was sunk. 1,700 civilians were lost.

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, and 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. Upon seeing the surprisingly fierce defense the Japanese put up in Karafuto, Joseph Stalin had decided to call 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.

While 100,000 civilians had managed to flee to Hokkaido, beyond the grasp of the Russians, the 300,000 who remained in occupied Karafuto were not so lucky (although even those refugees who managed to reach Hokkaido could expect an truly difficult set of years ahead of them). Despite Japanese attempts to have civilians in Soviet-occupied areas like Manchuria and Karafuto swiftly repatriated to Japan, the Soviet Union stalled. In Karafuto, the Soviets knew they would need the hundreds of thousands of Japanese as valuable manual labor while they began the process of recruiting Russians to populate the harsh environment of their new territory in southern Sakhalin.

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

The Soviets delayed repatriation of Japanese civilians for a year and a half, until Russian migrants finally began arriving to replace them. Even then, the process was slow, and 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, including many women who had married Korean laborers and whose citizenship had thus become muddled. Even today, some Japanese remain. One aged Japanese resident of Sakhalin in the 1990s reported that he had not been allowed to leave because the Soviets needed engine drivers.

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. Many Oroks were forced to move to Hokkaido by the Soviets, despite a complete lack of historical connection to the island. Meanwhile, some Nivkh had been trained by the Japanese military during wartime to infiltrate the border with northern Sakhalin, and knowing this, the Soviet authorities now tended to find reasons to arrest them and deport them to labor camps. This led to some Nivkh seeking to immigrate to Japan, where they would be free on Soviet harassment – a request that was finally granted 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, they have not been able to register for special native rights within Russia, and 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.

Some Korean laborers had managed to escape the Soviet onslaught, but the vast majority of Koreans who had not fled to Hokkaido wound up in a severely extended limbo. While the Japanese citizens stranded in Karafuto when the Soviets gained control were generally able to be repatriated (albeit slowly) over the first decade of Soviet rule, the Koreans were granted no such right of return. The Soviets, who soon came to hold half of the Korean Peninsula within their sphere of influence, 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, and had more pressing issues at hand (like repatriating the hundreds of thousands of Japanese nationals trapped behind Soviet lines in Manchuria), while the Americans were unwilling to press the Soviets with whom they were already locked in a tense situation regarding Korea.

Thus the Korean laborers in Karafuto were forced 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. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s were they allowed to start moving back “home” – to a homeland they hadn’t seen for 50 years or more. Even today, more than 40,000 Koreans remain on Sakhalin. Thus 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 situation regarding 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 made and unmade – especially now that the majority of those who called the prefecture home have since passed on.

The only hint of a persistent colonial memory regarding Karafuto comes, like such things so often do, from a cartographic anomaly. While Japanese world maps must by law portray the southern Kuril Islands, which Japan still claims despite Russian administration, as being colored red as is 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, similar to how American maps often leave Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. No other former Japanese colony receives such treatment.

While Cold War tensions meant that for some time Sakhalin and the Kurils represented a potentially explosive meeting point of Capitalism and Communism, and American planes thus sometimes tangled with Soviet fighters in the sky over the imagined “MacArthur Line” that separated Soviet Space from Japanese space, many things have changed in the past decades. Now, rather than the site of aggressive conflict between Russia and Japan that Sakhalin represented for hundreds of years, the island has in some ways become a place of hope and renewed relations between the two countries. Hokkaido and Sakhalin, so close, have become more and more tied together economically. Flights between the two islands now occur on the regular, and ferries and shipping boats ply the La Pérouse strait, bringing people and good between the islands. Relations have become so friendly and commerce so intertwined that major plans have been made for a train tunnel to be built under the waters of La Pérouse, at last physically connecting 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 to sign 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.

When we remove the weight of history and the imagined boundaries created by men in faraway imperial capitals, the ties between Hokkaido and Sakhalin, so close that each island can be seen from the other by the naked eye, seem to become completely natural. “Karafuto” is no more, but Sakhalin remains, serving as a physical tie between Japan and Russia, and 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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