Sakhalin: the Japanese Under Soviet Rule

Mariya Sevela gathers oral recollections from the people of Karafuto, a Japanese colony on the island of Sakhalin from 1905 until the arrival of the Soviet army forty years later.

The island of Sakhalin in the Sea of Okhotsk is a microcosm of Russo-Japanese relations. ‘Discovered’ almost simultaneously by the Russians and the Japanese in the mid-seventeenth century, it witnessed several shifts of rule between 1855 and 1945. Following Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905, by the Treaty of Portsmouth Sakhalin was divided at the 50th parallel. While the northern section remained Russian, the Japanese colony of Karafuto was established on the southern part of the island.

Following the terms of the February 1945 Yalta Agreement between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 8th, between the American atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It thus broke its five-year neutrality pact with Japan signed on April 13th, 1941. Compensation for fighting the Japanese in Manchukuo, Karafuto and Chishima promised to be considerable – South Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands were to become Russian once more.

The Soviet attack on Karafuto began on August 9th with an artillery bombardment of the Handenzawa frontier post that lasted three days. Fighting continued from August 11th to 25th, when the Soviet army took over the Karafuto capital, Toyohara, following landings by amphibious forces at the ports of Toro, Esutoru and Maoka. This was ten days after the Emperor had announced Japan’s capitulation and seven days after the Supreme Command Headquarters in Tokyo had ordered all Japanese forces to cease fire. Partial Japanese military resistance continued, however, while refugees from the occupied areas streamed towards Toyohara. Sixteen days of fighting left thousands dead on both sides; over 18,000 Japanese were taken prisoner and some 300,000 civilians were kept on the island by Soviet forces. The forty-year-old Japanese settlement of Karafuto was at an end.

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