History of the Northern Territories

History of the Northern Territories

Historical background

[17th century]

  • It is said that the Japanese known the northern islands 370 years ago.
  • Trade between these islands and Hokkaido existed long before then. According to the "Shinra-no-kiroku," a historical chronicle of the Matsumae Clan, who controlled Hokkaido in those days, the lord of Matsumae presented sea-otter skin -- which he had received as a gift from the Ainu in the Menashi region* -- to the Tokugawa shogunate in 1615.

* "Menashi" means eastern.

  • Because sea otters do not live around the main island of Hokkaido, it is presumed that the Ainu who lived on the northern islands were trading them with Hokkaido residents.
  • On "Shoho Onkoku Ezu," a map of Japan made by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1644, there are 39 large and small islands northeast of the Shiretoko Peninsula and Cape Nosappu. Thirty-four of them were named "Kunashiri," "Etorofu," "Urufu," etc.


Shoho Onkoku Ezu

[18th century]

  • Russia began to advance into Chishima (the Kuril Islands) in the early 18th century. Although the Russians often sent expeditions parties for research and hunted sea otters, they never went south of Uruppu Island, which is just north of Etorofu. This was because the Edo shogunate controlled the islands south of Etorofu and had guards statioed on those islands to prevent incursions by foreigners.

Rule of the Edo shogunate over the Northern Territories


Year Events
1754 Matsumae Clan opens the Kunashiri trading zone.
The clan sends merchant vessels to the zone, and their trade with the Ainu in Akkeshi and Kunashiri prospers.
1786 Mogami Tokunai visits Etorofu to study the situation of Russians moving south.
1798 The shogunate sends Kondo Juzo and others to Etorofu.
Kondo's party puts up a sign stating "Dainihon Etorofu" (Etorofu, Great Japan) in Tannemoi, Etorofu.
1799 The shogunate takes direct control of eastern Hokkaido, including the Northern Territories.
Takataya Kahei opens the Etorofu route.
1800 Takataya Kahei opens 17 fishing grounds around Etorofu.

[Early 19th century]

  • In 1811, Captain Golovnin and his crew, who stopped at Kunashiri during their survey of the sea near Chishima, were captured by the Nambu Clan and sent to Matsumae. Because Takataya Kahei was also captured by a Russian vessel near Kunashiri in the following year, Japan and Russia entered into negotiations to establish the border between the two countries in 1813.
  • Although the negotiations did not go smoothly, the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation was concluded in 1855 and the border was established between the islands of Etorofu and Uruppu. This border confirmed that Japanese territory stretched south of Etorofu and Russian territory stretched north of the Kurils (Chishima islands). Karafuto (Sakhalin) remained a place where people from both countries could live.

[Late 19th century]

  • In 1869 the new Meiji government established the Colonization Commission in Sapporo to aid in the development of the northern area. Ezo was renamed Hokkaido. 11 provinces and 86 districts were founded by the Meiji government and were put under the control of feudal clans.



Name of province Name of district Name of clan
Chishima (Kunashiri) Kunashiri Akita
Chishima (Etorofu) Etorofu
Saga (later changed to Sendai)
Kochi (later changed to Sendai)
Shikotan   Zojo Temple (later changed to Inada Kunitane)

(With the establishment of prefectures instead of feudal domains in 1871, these areas were put under direct control of the Colonization Commission.)

  • Because the new Meiji government could not sufficiently cope with Russians moving south in Sakhalin, the Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kuril Islands was concluded in 1875 and 18 islands north of Uruppu which had belonged to Russia were transferred to Japan.
  • In 1880, village offices were established on the islands of Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu under the new administrative system.
  • The main industry changed from hunting to fishing around 1885 and expanded to include salmon, crab and other north-sea fisheries.
  • Road networks and post offices were established on Kunashiri and Etorofu. Life on the islands became more stable when a regular sea route connecting the islands with Hokkaido was opened and a telegraphic service began.

[20th century / to the end of World War II]

  • 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 Islands were all part of the village of Habomai. The town and village system was not adopted on islands north of Uruppu, which were under direct control of the Nemuro subprefectural office of the Hokkaido government.

Each village had a district forestry office, a marine product examination center, a salmon hatchery, a post office, a police station, an elementary school and other facilities. In 1930, 8,300 people lived on Kunashiri Island and 6,300 on Etorofu Island, and most of them were engaged in fishing.

Towns and villages in April 1923
















* Uruppu, Shimushiru and Shumushu districts on the Chishima Islands were under direct control of the Nemuro subprefectural office of the Hokkaido government.

  • The Hokkaido government established the Chishima Research Center in the village of Shana on Etorofu in 1939. All the northern islands were surveyed by 74 staff members of this station who collected basic data for development. Because the northern islands were also of strategic importance for national defense, military bases were gradually established, and the development of the islands were promoted under the tense military situation.



Establishment of the border




Treaty of Commerce,Navigation and Delimitation
Under the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation between Japan and Russia (The Shimoda Treaty), Japan and Russia confirmed that, just as had been established peacefully until then, the boundary between them lay between the islands of Etorofu and Uruppu.


Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kurile Islands
Under the Treaty for the Exchange of Sakhalin for the Kurile Islands, Japan ceded all of Sakhalin Island to Russia in exchange for the Kurile Islands (listed in the treaty as 18 islands from Shumshu to Uruppu).


Portsmouth PeaceTreaty
Under the Portsmouth Peace Treaty which ended the War between Japan and Russia, Japan took over the southern part of Sakhalin at 50 degrees North Latitude from Russia.



San Francisco Peace Treaty
Under the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, Japan renounced all right, title and claim to the Kurile Islands, and to the southern part of Sakhalin which it had acquired by the Portsmouth Peace Treaty of 1905. However, the Islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai are not the part of the Kurile Islands. In addition, the Soviet Union refused to sign the San Francisco Peace Treaty.






Campaign for the Reversion of the Northern Territories


Start of the campaign for the reversion of the Northern Territories

  • The campaign for the reversion of the Northern Territories began when Ishisuke Ando, then Mayor of Nemuro, submitted a petition stating that "islands south of Etorofu have been Japanese territories since olden days and measures should be taken for the residents to live peacefully on these islands," to General MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers on December 1, 1945 (Contents of the petition).This petition led to the formation of the Committee to Request the Reversion of the Islands near Hokkaido in 1946 mainly by repatriates from the islands and people in Nemuro.

Establishment of the Japan League for the Reversion of the Northern Territories Inc.

  • Because the loss of the Northern Territories meant a loss of rich fishing grounds, it greatly influenced the economy of Hokkaido. Many organizations for the reversion of the Northern Territories were therefore formed and the reversion campaign gradually expanded. These organizations included the League for the Development of the North-Sea Fisheries in Hakodate and the League to Request the Return of Karafuto and Chishima in Sapporo. Because the campaign of individual organizations was not powerful enough, the League for the Return of Chishima and Habomai Islands was formed in November 1950 so that organizations and municipalities could join forces to appeal powerfully to the whole nation and the rest of the world.The League was renamed the Japan League for the Return of the Northern Territories Inc. in 1963. It has been striving to influence public opinion by petitioning the national government and Diet, holding gatherings of local residents, and presenting lectures and exhibitions on the Northern Territories.

Activities of the national government and diet

  • After the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, the cold war continued and no progress was seen concerning the territorial issue after Prime Minister Khrushchev stated that the Northern Territories issue had already been solved. The suggestion of Kosygin at the regular conference between Japan and the Soviet Union in 1967, however, led to the establishment of the "Special Committee on Okinawa and Northern Issues" in both the House of Representatives and the House of Councilors in March 1968.
  • The Japanese government established the Okinawa and Northern Countermeasures Agency in May 1970 as an external organ of the Prime Minister's Office to prepare measures for the return of Okinawa and facilitate solutions to northern problems. The Northern Area Division of the Agency was exclusively in charge of the Northern Territories issue.The Northern Territories Affairs Administration was established on May 15, 1972 as a department of the Prime Minister's Office (Management and Coordination Agency since July 1, 1984) to further consolidate measures in northern areas after the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty. The Director-General of Administrative Affairs in the Prime Minister's Office was appointed the Executive Director and the Deputy Director-General the Deputy Executive Director of the Headquarters. Councilors and other full-time staff were positioned under the Deputy Executive Director.
  • The Japanese government established the Interministerial Liaison Council Concerning Northern Issues in 1968 to facilitate a solution to the Northern Territories issue. The government has also held the Meeting of Prefectural Directors in Charge of Northern Countermeasures since 1977 to increase cooperation among prefectures other than Hokkaido concerning the reversion campaign.

Activities of the Hokkaido government and prefectural assembly

  • The Hokkaido prefectural assembly adopted a resolution to request the reversion of Habomai, Etorofu and Kunashiri islands to Japanese sovereignty on July 22, 1947. Since then, the assembly has constantly appealed to the national government and the Diet by adopting a "statement concerning the campaign for the reversion of the Northern Territories and the promotion of a solution for the Northern Territories issue" and other resolutions almost every year.
  • The Special Committee on the Northern Territories, which was established in March 1968, has been active in promoting the campaign for the reversion of the Northern Territories and supporting former residents. The Committee also appealed to the prefectural assemblies throughout the nation to adopt "resolutions or statements concerning the reversion of the Northern Territories." The resolution of the Tokyo metropolitan assembly in October 1976 completed the resolutions of all 47 prefectural assemblies.
  • Because negotiations concerning the conclusion of a peace treaty between Japan and the Soviet Union started in 1955 and signs of a solution to the territorial issue began appearing, the Hokkaido government also established the "Headquarters for the Return of the Northern Territories and North-Sea Fisheries" in the Department of General Affairs on February 28, 1956 to develop comprehensive measures for accepting the territories when the reversion is realized. At the time of its establishment, the Headquarters focused on collection and preparation of basic data for the establishment of regional reconstruction plans after reversion in accordance with the purpose of its establishment. It was also tasked with studying the actual situation of former residents, as well as to fostering and guiding organizations related to northern areas. At that time, six groups -- general affairs, planning, welfare, economic affairs, fisheries and construction -- were established under the Executive Director. Staff of relevant departments or divisions also served as chiefs and members of those groups, in addition to four full-time staff members. After that, the Headquarters' system was further consolidated to keep up with the changing situation of the territorial issue. With its reorganization in 1984, it was renamed the Northern Territories Countermeasures Headquarters. The old groups were abolished and the original form of the present system was established.


Mt.Chacha -Kunashiri


Progress and status of the Northern Territories issue

  • The Northern Territories issue began in September 1945 when the Soviet Army illegally occupied the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai, which were inherent Japanese territories.
  • As the difference of positions of the two countries did not provide any prospect to reach an agreement on the territorial issue except with regard to Habomai and Shikotan during the negotiation process, on 19 October 1956 Japan and the Soviet Union signed the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration to end the state of  war and to restore diplomatic and consular relations between the two countries, having agreed to continue negotiations for the conclusion of a peace treaty which should included the territorial issue, after the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between Japan and the Soviet Union. In Article 9 of the Declaration, the two countries agreed to continue negotiations for the conclusion of a peace treaty and the Soviet Union agreed to hand over Habomai and Shikotan to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty.
  • The Tokyo Declaration signed by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and President Boris Yeltsin in 1993 mentioned each of the Four Islands of the Northern Territories by name and defined the territorial issue as an issue of which country these islands belong to. The Declaration set out clear negotiation guidelines; Japan and Russia should conclude a peace treaty by resolving the territorial issue (i) on the basis of historical and legal facts, (ii) based on the documents to which both parties agreed, and (iii) on the principles of law and justice.


  •  In the Irkutsk Statement signed by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and President Vladimir Putin in 2001, both parties confirmed that the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration of 1956 was a basic legal document that established the starting point in the negotiation process for the conclusion of a peace treaty, and based on this confirmation, reaffirmed that a peace treaty should be concluded by resolving the issue of which country the Four Islands of the Northern Territories belong to on the basis of the Tokyo Declaration of 1993.
  • Prime Minister Koizumi and President Vladimir Putin adopted the Japan-Russia Action Plan in January 2003 and confirmed their determination to conclude a peace treaty as early as possible by resolving

    the issue of which country the Four Islands of Northern Territories belong to, thereby fully normalizing the relationship between the two countries.

  • At the summit meeting in June 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Vladimir Putin reviewed progress in the implementation of the Japan-Russia Action Plan of 2003 and shared the view that progress has successfully been made in a number of fields. On top of that, they confirmed that negotiations for the conclusion of a peace treaty were an important pillar of the Japan-Russia Action Plan and agreed that both countries should continue to commit themselves to making progress in negotiations for a peace treaty to resolve the territorial issue in the future.


The Japanese government, while promoting co-operation with Russia in broad areas, is engaged in vigorous negotiations with the Russian government under a consistent policy of concluding a peace treaty at an early stage by resolving the attribution issue of the Four Islands of the Northern Territories based on the previous agreements and documents.




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