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Memorandum of the Division of Territorial Studies1

CAC–302 secret


Territorial Problems:

The Kurile Islands

I. The Problem

The problem is the future disposition of the Kurile Islands.

II. Basic Factors

The Kurile Islands have strategic importance for Japan, the Soviet Union and the United States. They also have appreciable economic value for Japan.

A. Description

The Kuriles form a chain of 47 sparsely inhabited volcanic islands extending for about 690 miles in a northeasterly direction from Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, to the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka. They have an area of approximately 3,944 square miles. The permanent population 17,550 (1940), all Japanese, is increased during the summer months by 20,000 to 30,000 seasonal workers in the fishing industry. Japan has been in possession of the southern Kuriles since about 1800. Russia, which [Page 380]was advancing into the northern islands from Kamchatka, recognized Japan’s title to these southern islands in 1855; in 1875 Russia withdrew from all the Kuriles in return for Japan’s withdrawal from Southern Sakhalin. The Kuriles are considered to be a part of Japan proper and for administrative purposes are under the Hokkaido prefecture.

The economic importance of the islands is due almost entirely to the fishing industry, whose output in 1938 was estimated at about $9,000,000. Fish products are essential in the Japanese diet and form an important item in Japan’s export trade. The Kurile fishing industry will be of increasing importance to Japan if the Soviet Union further restricts or closes to the Japanese access to the inshore fishing grounds of Eastern Siberia.

The Kuriles are important strategically to both Japan and the Soviet Union because they are a connecting chain between the two countries and provide bases for both defense and attack. They are also important to the Soviet Union because they form a military screen to the ocean approach to the Okhotsk Sea and the Maritime provinces. They are important to the United States because they are near the Aleutians, form part of the land-bridge between Japan and Alaska, and are situated on the great-circle route between the United States and Japan. Japan has established a number of fortified air and naval bases on the islands.

The Kuriles may be divided into three groups: southern, central and northern. The southern group, which extends about 235 miles north from Hokkaido up to and including the island of Etorofu, contains 90 percent of the total population of the Kuriles and has been admittedly Japanese territory since about 1800. The nearest point in the group is only about 12 miles from Hokkaido. The people are Japanese and their life is the same as that in the main islands of Japan. The stragetic value of these islands is limited by the fact that for about half of the year the waters of Okhotsk Sea to the west of the Kuriles is largely filled with ice and almost impassable.

The central group, beginning with the large island of Uruppu, extends north about 375 miles, is largely unpopulated and has almost negligible economic value. It is important strategically; the islands lie across the entrance into Okhotsk Sea, and Shimushiru, 31 miles long and 5 miles wide, encloses Broughton (Buroton) Bay, which can be developed into an important base and possible fleet anchorage. The Handbook on the Kurile Islands, issued in November, 1943 by the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, says of this bay: “If the entrance has been improved, Broughton Bay is now a magnificent harbor.” The Survey of the Kurile Islands, issued by the Military Intelligence Service of the War Department, states: “This bay would be one of the critical factors in operations in the Kurile Islands.” The [Page 381]entrance to the bay, which was only six feet deep, is apparently being deepened. The engineering task of making the entrance passable for any ships is not insurmountable. The area of the bay is not fortified. The central islands have the further strategic value of constituting stepping stones from the southern to the northern group.

The northern group, comprising three principal islands, Paramushiro, Shimushu and Araito, is important both for its fisheries and for its air and naval bases. The value of the fisheries and of other marine products in and around the northern group amounted in 1938 to $7,000,000 of the total $9,000,000 for all of the Kuriles. Geographically, the group represents a continuation of Kamchatka, the strait separating Shimushu from Kamchatka being only seven miles wide.

Important factors which may affect the decision as to the disposition of the Kuriles are (1) the desire of the American Navy that a United Nations base or bases should be established on some of the islands, (2) possible pressure from the Soviet Government, whether or not it enters the war against Japan, for the acquisition of the northern and central groups and possibly of all the Kuriles, and (3) the desirability of extending the principle of international control to all of the islands detached from the Japanese Empire as a result of the war.

B. Claims and Possible Solutions

1. Japan

Japan has a strong claim to the southern group of the Kuriles on the basis of nationality, self-determination, geographic propinquity, economic need and historic possession.

Japan’s claim to the central islands is based almost solely on the ground of possession. If, as it may be assumed, the southern and central islands should be demilitarized and subject, for such a period as may appear adequate, to a system of military inspection by an international agency, their retention by Japan would appear not to constitute a threat to other states.

To the northern group Japan’s claim is based primarily on its need to retain the fishing industry centered on those islands. Ownership of the islands would be more satisfactory to Japan than a grant of fishing rights in territory under control of one or more other powers. However, whatever disposition may be made of the Kuriles, Japan might be permitted to continue to carry on its fishing industry throughout the islands.

2. The Soviet Union

The Soviet Union has a substantial claim to the northern group, Shimushu, Paramushiro and Araito, on the grounds of propinquity and the consequent desirability of controlling these islands to prevent them from becoming a military menace if in the possession of a hostile power.

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The Soviet Government may ask not only for the northern islands, but also for the central and possibly even for the southern group. Possession of the northern and central islands would give the Soviet Union control of passages into the Okhotsk Sea which are practically ice-free throughout the year There would seem, however, to be few factors which would justify a Soviet claim to the southern islands; this transfer to the Soviet Union would create a situation which a future Japan would find difficult to accept as a permanent solution. It would deprive Japan of islands which are historically and ethnically Japanese and of waters which are valuable for fishing. If the southern islands should be fortified they would be a continuing menace to Japan.

The situation may be complicated by a Soviet demand that the other United Nations agree to the transfer to the Soviet Union of the northern group or of both the northern and central groups as a quid pro quo for the Soviet Union’s entering the war against Japan.

3. The United States

The United States Navy wishes a base on the Kuriles which it might use in case of naval operations in this area. It is not clear whether such a base would be under international administration or whether it would be a Russian base open to American ships and planes under designated conditions.

4. The Projected International Organization

The northern group or both the northern and central groups might be placed under the authority of the projected international organization. This solution would most completely remove the military menace from their use by any one power. It would also make possible the establishment on the northern group, which is of particular strategic importance, of an international base or bases.

The international organization might designate as administering authority either an international mixed commission, or more likely the Soviet Union. In the latter case the Soviet Union would doubtless establish the base or bases which, it is hoped would be available for the use of the United States and other United Nations.

It would appear undesirable for the United States to be sole administrator of these islands or to have sole possession of bases, since it would place this country in a distant and dangerous position in case of future difficulties with the Soviet Union.

If the northern and central groups should be placed under the projected international organization rather than given to the Soviet Union in full sovereignty it would be more likely that Japan might obtain the right to continue to carry on the fishing industry in and around the northern islands, an important factor in Japan’s national economy; and (2) it would be easier to obtain general American support for the recommendations that Japan’s Mandated Islands and [Page 383]Marcus Island be placed under the authority of the projected international organization and administered by the United States.

III. Recommendations

It is recommended that:

the southern Kuriles should be retained by Japan subject to the principles of disarmament to be applied to the entire Japanese Empire,
the northern and central Kuriles should be placed under the projected international organization which should designate the Soviet Union as administering authority, and
in any case, the retention by Japan of fishing rights in the waters of the northern group should be given consideration.

Prepared and reviewed by the Inter-Divisional Area Committee on the Far East.

  1. Prepared by George H. Blakeslee. This memorandum was not included in the Yalta Briefing Book and no evidence has been found to indicate that it was brought to the attention of Roosevelt or Stettinius.