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  • Japanese: 樺太 (Karafuto)

Sakhalin, or Karafuto in Japanese, is an island directly north of Hokkaidô, which stretches north alongside the eastern coast of Russia's Khabarovsk Krai. It is separated from the Asian mainland by the Straits of Tartary (Mamiya kaikyô in Japanese, after Mamiya Rinzô, the first Japanese to survey the island, in 1808).[1]

The chief indigenous peoples of the island are the Sakhalin Ainu and the Nivkh. These people had close ties with the Ainu of Ezo (Hokkaidô) and other nearby regions, and shared many cultural similarities. Those on Sakhalin are known for their dog breeding, and use of dogs for pulling sleds and as hunting companions, as well as for furs, skins, and meat. Though located on the peripheries of both Russian and Japanese territory, the peoples of the island were well-engaged in local regional trade with Russians, Japanese, Chinese, and various fellow indigenous peoples. When a Dutch crew arrived on the island in 1643, they were surprised to find the natives calling them "Spanola" (i.e. Spanish), an indication of the natives' familiarity with other foreign peoples.

Local samurai power-holders in Ezo began receiving tribute from (some of) the Ainu of Sakhalin as early as 1475. No Japanese trading post or other formal presence on the island would be established until 1790, however. By 1805, a second trading post had been established. Shortly prior to that, Hayashi Shihei's 1785 Sangoku tsûran zusetsu includes a map which is likely the first in Japan to use color to distinguish Tokugawa Japan from other countries. On this map, Sakhalin is represented in yellow, along with the Kurils and most of Ezo, in contrast to Japanese territory in blue, and Russia in red.[2]

The arrival of Russian ships at Sakhalin and some of the Kuril Islands in 1806 again inspired the shogunate to take action against Russian encroachment; they declared western Ezo and southern Sakhalin to be shogunal territory (tenryô). Mamiya Rinzô explored and surveyed the island in 1808 to an extent no Japanese had ever done before, and in the process discovered (or confirmed) that it is in fact an island, and not a peninsula of the Asian mainland.

Agents of the Russia-America Company again landed on the island in 1854, this time claiming it under the doctrine of terra nullius (i.e. that essentially no one was living there, and that it is therefore free for the taking). The following year, the Treaty of Shimoda resolved Russian/Japanese disputes over the Kuril Islands and some other territories, while the case of Sakhalin was left undetermined. Even so, this is significant as the first treaty which formally established Japanese national borders in the modern sense at all, even if only in the Kurils.[3] The Meiji government asked the US government to serve as a neutral mediator, to help arbitrate the dispute in 1869-1870, but though the US agreed, Russia refused to work with any third party. In 1872, Japan attempted to buy the island from Russia, but Russia refused this as well, offering instead to buy the island from Japan; this offer was also rejected.[4]

As in the debate over invading Korea, which was playing out simultaneously, two factions emerged within the Meiji government over whether to abandon Sakhalin, or to defend claims to it, even at the risk of war with Russia. Kuroda Kiyotaka, head of the Hokkaido Development Office, advocated abandoning Sakhalin. Very few Japanese lived there, the government had already poured considerable funds into it with little return, and Hokkaidô was still very much in need of development. He was opposed by Saigô Takamori, Etô Shinpei, Okamoto Kansuke, Nabeshima Naomasa, and others, who were concerned about the Russian threat, and who felt that military efforts to defend the island (much like an invasion of Ryûkyû) could serve as a release valve, so to speak, directing disgruntled former samurai into productive military efforts so as to prevent them turning their restlessness into armed revolt against the government.[5]

Kuroda's faction eventually won out. Russia's presence on the island already far exceeded that of Japan, and so it was all but inevitable that Japan would lose the island anyway; further, Kuroda's arguments about the economic disadvantages of developing Sakhalin gradually came to convince more of the oligarchs to turn to his side. The dispute with Russia over the territory was thus finally resolved, for the time being at least, with a formal treaty signed on May 7, 1875. In this agreement, Japan renounced all claims to Sakhalin in exchange for Russia recognizing all the Kurils as Japanese territory.[6]

Sakhalin was the site of the last land battle of the Russo-Japanese War. In treaty negotiations following the war, Russia rejected Japanese demands for rights to all of Sakhalin. In he final agreement, the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth, Russia still ceded the southern portion of the island. A major Shinto shrine, called Karafuto Shrine, was established there in 1912. Southern Sakhalin remained part of the Japanese Empire until the very last days of World War II, when the Soviet Union finally began attacking Japanese territory.


  1. Plaques on-site at Mamiya's grave, 2-7-8 Hirano, Kôtô-ku, Tokyo.[1]
  2. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation. M.E. Sharpe (1998), 23.; Hayashi Shihei. Sangoku tsûran zusetsu. Edo, 1785. University of Hawaii Hamilton Library Sakamaki-Hawley Collection. HW 552-553.
  3. Mitani Hiroshi, David Noble (trans.), Escape from Impasse, International House of Japan (2006), 247-250, 292.
  4. Jordan Walker, "Archipelagic Ambiguities: The Demarcation of Modern Japan, 1868-1879," Island Studies Journal 10:2 (2015), 209.
  5. Walker, 210.; Though Saigô and his supporters would get an overseas military expedition in 1874, in Taiwan, many still rose up in rebellion in 1876-1877.
  6. Walker, 211.