Before the arrival of Japanese and Russian settlers sometime in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the original inhabitants of the Southern Kurils were the Ainu people. Today, the Sakhalin Regional Museum in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk offers an enlightening exhibit about the Ainu (it’s advisable to have an English-language guide).
The 1855 Treaty of Shimoda ceded Iturup and, by mutual understanding, the other disputed islands to Japan. After the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, Japan occupied the southern half of Sakhalin as well. In the waning days of World War II, the Soviet Union took over both Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. The San Francisco Peace Treaty signed between the victorious allies and Japan in 1951 stated that the latter had to give up “all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands” but did not name the USSR as their rightful owner. During negotiations for the separate Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, which formally ended war between the two countries but did not amount to a peace treaty, the Soviet Union offered Japan the two smaller islands of Shikotan and Habomai in exchange for Japan renouncing all claims to the larger islands of Iturup and Kunashir (which constitute 93% of the disputed territory). Japan refused the offer. Recent efforts to jointly develop the islands have not yielded any tangible results.
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