The road to prefecturehood

By William Wetherall

First posted 1 January 2007
Last updated 18 March 2014

Russo-Japanese War Origins in Korea | Liaotung  |  Truce and treaty
Karafuto Government-General of Karafuto | Family registers | Nationality | Civil code | Penal code
Karafuto etymologyFrom "Empty large" and "Chinaman" to "strait of gods" and "river mouth" -- and fears of "Kabafuto"
Related territories Hokkaido | Chishima

Russo-Japanese War






Liaotung Peninsula



Truce and treaty




Japan's interests in Karafuto go back many centuries, and conflicts over the territory with Russia date from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the Treaty of Shimoda, signed in 1855, Japan and Russia, while recognizing that the southern Kuriles belonged to Japan and the northern Kuriles belonged to Russia, agreed that the two countries would share their interests in Sakhalin, which Japan called Karafuto. This situation continued into the early Meiji period.

Here is an outline of developments in the history of Sakhalin (Karafuto) as a part of Japan, beginning from the Meiji period. Only the most salient developments are shown. For reference, developments in the status of Ezo (Hokkaido) and the Kurils (Chishima) are shown, but only Karafuto dates are shown in bold.

1855-02-07 (Ansei 1-12-21)   Treaty of Shimoda. "Japan-Russia amity treaty" (Nichi-Ro washin jōyaku). The two countries agree to draw boundaries between southern and northern Kurils (Chishima), but no boundary on Sakhalin (Karafuto). They disagreed, however, over the nomenclature and status of Karafuto Ainu, hence dispensed with attachments that would have clarified that Karafuto Ainu should be treated on a par with Ezo Ainu, namely, be subject to Japan's rule.

1873   Census taken of native (土人 dojin) households (樺太土人家数人別御改調). Established rolls (籍帳 sekicho) in which only Ainu were enrolled (編貫 henkan) in household registers. These registers were differentiated from registers in the prefectures. They are considered by some to be the frist "territorial registers" (地域籍 chiikiseki) in Japan, representing what some have termed "quasi" or "provisionsal" Japanese nationality (準日本人国籍 jun Nihonjin kokuseki).

1875-05-07   Treaty of St. Petersburg. "Chishima Karafuto exchange treaty" (Chishima Karafuto kokan joyaku).

1875-08-22   Attachments to Treaty of St. Petersburg. "Chishima Karafuto exchange treaty attachments (Chishima Karafuto kōkan jōyaku furoku).

1905   All of Karafuto under military government. Establishment of "Karafuto Civil Administration Office" (樺太民政署 Karafuto Minseisho).

1906   "Karafuto Government" (樺太庁 Karafutocho) administrative system established (Imperial Ordinance No. 33). Regulations concerning filing notifications of residence, moving, birth, and death (居住、移転、出生および死亡に関する届出規則) promulgated (Karafuto Government Ordinance No. 26)

1907 (Imperial Ordinance No. 25)   Law concerning laws and regulations to be enforced in Karafuto (樺太ニ施行スヘキ法令ニ関スル法律), promulgated 28 March 1907, enforced from 1 April 1907. Karafuto was treated as a different legal entity from the prefectures. However, unlike the governors-general of Taiwan and Korea, the governor of Karafuto was not granted legislative powers. He could issue ordinances but not laws. This caused University of Tokyo professor Kawashima Shin (b1968) to remark, in his web-posted "seminar" on Karafuto, that it was "the exterior territory with the thinist exterior character" (外地性の最も希薄な外地 Gaichisei no mottomo kihaku-na gaichi).

1907 Law concerning laws to be enforced in Karafuto

Law No. 25 of 1907

Promulgated on 29 March 1907
Enforced from 1 April same year

Abrogated by Law No. 85 of 1943, promulgated on 26 March 1943, effective from 1 April 1943

樺太ニ施行スヘキ法令ニ関スル法律 (明治40年法律第25号)


 一 土人ニ関スルコト
 二 行政官庁又ハ公署ノ職権ニ関スルコト
 三 法律上ノ期間ニ関スルコト
 四 裁判所又ハ裁判長カ職権ヲ以テ選任シ又ハ選定スル弁護人、訴訟代理人又ハ訴訟承継人ニ関スルコト



明治四十年法律第二十五号廃止法律 (昭和18年法律第85号)



1 本法ハ昭和十八年四月一日ヨリ之ヲ施行ス
2 本法施行前公布セラレタル法律ノ樺太施行ニ関シテハ仍従前ノ例ニ依ル其ノ全部又ハ一部ノ改正法律ニシテ本法施行後公布セラルルモノニ付亦同シ

Status of Karafuto

1 April 1907   Karafuto Government (樺太庁 Karafutocho) formally begins.

1907-1910   Karafuto governors report directly to the Minister of Home Affairs (Naimudaijin).

1910-1912   Karafuto governors report directly to the Prime Minister (Soridaijin).

1912-1917   Karafuto governors report directly to the Minister of Home Affairs (Naimudaijin).

1917-1929   Karafuto governors report directly to the Prime Minister (Soridaijin).

1929-1942   Karafuto governors reported directly to the Minister of Land Development (Takumudaijin).

1 November 1942   Karafuto again placed under the Home Ministry, which prepares to formally incorporate it into the Interior.

1943   Karafuto becomes part of Interior. It is treated as the 48th prefecture and is listed ahead of Hokkaido on the north-south ordered list of prefectures.

Family register and nationality measures

1921   "Regulation on filing resident notice" (居住者届出規則 Ijusha todokede kisoku) (Karafuto Government Ordinance No. 35). The Karafuto Government was given responsibility for matters concerning households.

1924   The Nationality Law, the Family Register Law, the Temporary Residence Law, the Civil Code Enforcement Regulations, and the Commerce Law were extended to Karafuto by Imperial Ordinance No. 88 of 1924, sanctioned by the emperor on 16 April 1924, promulgated in the Official Gazette on 18 April, and enforced from 1 August 1924 (Tashiro 1974: 851, which erroneously states 1 August 1923).

Four Cabinet Office Ordinances were issued the same year to qualify procedures related to the operation of the Nationality Law in Karafuto. Karafuto was not part of the Interior, and hence slightly different procedures were required for (1) a Japanese with a honseki in Karafuto, who was domiciled in another state and also possessed its nationality, and wished to renounce Japan's nationality, (2) a Japanese with both a honseki and a domicile address in Karafuto, who wished to adopt an alien child or an alien husband into their family register, or (3) an alien domiciled in Karafuto who wished to naturalize in Japan or, as a former Japanese national, recover Japan's nationality.

The above measures illustrate the manner in which legal bureaucrats in Japan micro-managed the administration of laws concerning Japanese nationality in the case of a territory other than the Interior. As they are rather complex and better illustrate the umbilical relationship between nationality and family registers, and I have described them more fully in 1924 application of Naichi laws to Karafuto on the Family register laws from 1886-1945 page in the "Nationality" section of this website, which see for further particulars.

Measures affecting Karafuto Ainu

1909   Karafuto Native People Household and Population [Census] Regulations (樺太土人戸口規則 Karafuto Dojin Kokō Kisoku)

1921   Karafuto Native People Household and Population [Census] Notification [Reporting] Regulations (樺太土人戸口届出規則 Karafuto Dojin Kokō Todokede Kisoku)

1924   Interior Family Register Law applied to Karafuto.

1926   Karafutoan natives other than Ainu, meaning mainly Gilyak and Orok but also others, were gathered at Otasu (オタス) on the outskirts of Shisuka (敷香), now the Russian town of Poronaysk (ポロナイスク Boronaisuku). Their registers, called "Aborigine name rolls" (原住民人名簿 Genjūmin jinmeibo), functioned as family registers, but were differented from Ainu registers.

January 1933   Karafuto Ainu family registers were integrated with other family registers (戸籍編貫 koseki henkan) (Imperial Ordinance No. 37 of December 1932). Henceforth, Karafuto Ainu were free to move their registers to the Interior and thereby become Interiorites. In this regard, their status vis a vis Interiorites was above that of Chosenese and Taiwanese, who could not move their registers to the Interior. Karafutoan natives on the aborigine name rolls were similarly unable to move their registers.


Government-General of Karafuto


1 April 1907   Karafuto formally became the "Karafuto Government" (樺太庁 Karafuto-cho). It's "governor" (長官 chokan) was appointed by XXX and answered to YYY. Some sixteen men held the post until 1945, when the Soviet Union invaded and occupied the territory and arrested the last governor.

Hokkaido, too, was a "government" (庁 cho). Unlike Karafuto, which was not an interior entity, the "Hokkaido Government" (北海道庁 Hokkaido-cho), though a prefecture, was directly overseen by the Home Affairs Ministry from 1886 to 1947. Today the prefecture is called just "Hokkaido" (北海道) though some people mistakenly call it "Hokkaido-ken" (北海道県).

10 June 1929   Karafuto was placed under the direction of the Land Development Ministry (拓務省 Takumusho).

1 November 1942   When the Land Development Ministry was dissolved and the Greater East Asia Ministry (大東亜省 Dai-To-A-sho) created to oversee the territories beyond Japan's sovereign dominion, Karafuto, with Taiwan and Chosen, were placed under the Home Affairs Ministry (内務省 Naimusho).

1 April 1943   Karafuto was integrated into the Interior polity of prefectures.

9 August 1945   Soviet forces begin their invasion of Karafuto, and by 28 August they have occupied Japan's half of Sakhalin.

29 January 1946   A SCAP directive on "Governmental and Administrative Separation of Certain Outlying Areas from Japan" excludes Karafuto from "Japan" as an occupied country. In effect, SCAP has recognzied the USSR's claim to the territory.

30 January 1947   A 1946 Imperial Ordinance (No. 55) concerning reform of the Home Affairs Ministry administration system comes into effect, resulting in Karafuto affairs being put under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

1 June 1949   Karafuto ceases to be an administrative organ of the state.


Family registers




Japan had begun to introduce registers in Karafuto before 1875, when in the treaty of St. Petersburg it reluctantly agreed to a swap of its interests in Karafuto, the southern part of Sakhalin, for the northern Kurils, thus bring all of the Chishima islands, north and south, under its control and jurisdiction. Russia was forced, by its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, to cede Karafuto to Japan in the Treaty of Portsmouth.

From 1905, with Karafuto now part of its sovereign dominion, and under its control and jurisdiction, Japan began systematically establishing an essentially prefectural-style (Intererior, Naichi) style family register system for people in Karafuto who were not considered subjects of Russia or another state under the terms of the treaty. As it had elsewhere throughout its sovereign dominion -- in the prefectures, in all new territories that were incorporated into the prefectural jurisdiction, but also in Taiwan, an external jurisdiction -- registers were the foundation for local and state control and administration.

Extension of Nationality Law to Karafuto

The Nationality Law was extended to Karafuto together with the Family Register Law, the Temporary Residence Law, the Civil Code Enforcement Regulations, and the Commerce Law by Imperial Ordinance No. 88 of 1924, sanctioned by the seal of the emperor on 16 April 1924, promulgated by publication in the Official Gazette on 18 April, and enforced from 1 August 1924 (Tashiro 1974: 851, which erroneously states 1 August 1923).

Postwar nationality disposition

Though the Kurils (J. Chishima) are part of the southern province of Sakhalin in Russia today, the Chishimas were not part of Karafuto but part of Hokkaido. The two territories, lost to the Soviet Union in the final days of World War II, were treated the nationality related ordinances after the war.

Both Karafuto and the Chishima are viewed as having been part of Japan's interior in the 1952 Civil Affairs A No. 438 notification, concerning the disposition of nationality and family register matters regarding Koreans, Taiwanese, and others, in conjunction with the effectuation of the [1951] Treaty of Peace [with Japan] from 28 April 1952. From this date, Taiwan and Korea were separated from Japan, and hence people with principal registers in these territories lost their Japanese nationality. However, those whose principal registers in Karafuto and Chishima, though Karafuto and Chishima would also be separated from Japan, would not lose their nationality -- but, because their registers were now outside the Japan's territory, they would have to establish a register in accordance with the Family Registration Law.


Civil Code



Penal Code



Etymology of "Karafuto"

The linguistic origins of "karafuto" are anything but clear. The use of characters to represent the elements of personal and place names should always be viewed with skepticism. Even when the characters would appear to make sense, the original meanings of the names need to be explained linguistically rather than graphically. In other words, writing should never be confused for language.

One has to assume that the word "karafuto" came before any characters were used to represent it in writing. On the surface, 樺太 would read, in standard Japanese today, "kabafuto" (樺太) -- "kaba" (or "kanba") being a kind of birch (cf. "white birch" 白樺 shirakaba), and "futo" (usually "buto") meaning "thick" or "large". The place name has also been written 唐太, which on the surface would read "karafuto" or "karabuto" -- "kara" meaning "China".

Here are a number of hypotheses about the meaning of "karafuto" -- including two conflicting Ainu theories. I have gathered and supplemented them from several Internet sources, though several books on Karafuto also touch upon some its etymology.

1900s "distant fortress" theory

The Meiji scholar Ogawa Unpei (小川運平 1876−1935), who wrote books about China, Manchuria, and Karafuto, thought "karafuto" might be a corruption of mongolian "karahoton", in which "kara" [qola] means "far" and "hoton" means "castle".

1854 "empty large" theory

In 1854, the Edo scholar Maeda Kain / Natsukage (前田夏蔭 1793-1864) published a work called Ezo tozai kosho (蝦夷東西考証), a study of eastern and western that also includes material on northern Ezo. In it, he ventures that "karafuto" reflects 空虚太 meaning "empty and large" -- as he supposed early Japanese travellers regarded the huge, mountainous island.

1791 "Chinaman" theory

One theory is that "karafuto" is a corruption of "karahito" or "karabito" meaning "Chinese person" -- as Chinese were deeply involved in, and at times dominated, the Northeast Asian trade that flowed through the island. One vestige of the Karafuto trade route is "karafutodama" (樺太玉), which were green or red kneaded beads, made in Northeast China and imported into Japan through Karafuto during the Tokugawa period.

The theory that "karafuto" means "chinaman" is attributed to the Edo astronomer Takahashi Kageyasu (高橋景保 (1785-1829). In Hokui kosho (北夷考証), a 1791 work about the "northern barbarians", he is supposed to said that Japanese named the island "karahito" (唐人) because they thought Chinese were its native inhabitants. The "hi" of "karahito" was then corrupted to "fu".

1867 "prawn" theory

The late Edo explorer Matsuura Takeshiro (松浦武四郎 1818-1888) surveyed both Ezo and Karafuto for the Tokugawa shogunate. He gave Ezo the name Hokkaido when it was annexed by the Meiji government in 1869. Matsuura, who had earlier been a monk, wrote under the playful name "Hokkai Dojin" (Hokkai Dojin) or "Northsea Traveler". In Ezo nendai ki (蝦夷年代記), finished in 1867 and published in 1871, Matsuura is supposed to have suggested that "Karafuto" meant "shrimp" (ebi) to Orok (Uilta) natives who thought the island was shaped like a prawn.

1869 "herring" theory

The linguist and lexicographer Otsuki Fumihiko (大槻文彦 1847-1928) is supposed to have written -- in Hokkaido fudoki (北海道風土記), a 1869 work about Hokkaido and associated islands -- that "kara" was dialect for "nishin" (鯡) and "futo" meant "many".

1869 "strait of gods" theory

The restorationist government that replaced the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo immediately began securing its control of Ezo and Karafuto. By the 6th month of the 4th year of Keio (July/August 1868), a month before Edo was renamed Tokyo (Keio 4-7-17, 1868-9-3) and three months before the reign year was changed to Meiji (Meiji 1-9-8, 1868-10-23), Okamoto Kansuke (岡本監輔 1839-1904) and other officials landed with some two hundred farmers at Kushunkotan (久春古丹 A. Kus-un-kotan, R. Korsakov, J. Ootomari) and set up a government office there.

Kushunkotan had become the port of entry to Karafuto. During the 17th century, the Matsumae domain had established a flourishing trading post there. In 1907, after the Russo-Japanese War, the office of the first government-general was established there before moving north to Toyohara (R. Vladimirovka, R. Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk) in 1908.

Okamoto was instrumental in developing Karafuto and Chishima as frontier settlements. Nishimura Toshimitsu (西村利光), who accompanied Okamoto's party in 1868, is said to have attributed "karafuto" to the Ainu expression カモイ・カラ・ブト (kamoi kara buto) meaning 神の作った海峡 (kami no tsukutta kaikyo) or "strait made by gods". Supposedly this was the local Ainu name for what was later called the Soya Strait (宗谷海峡) between the northern periphery of Hokkaido and the southern tip of Karafuto. Supposedly "kamoi" (kamui) or "gods" was dropped as the expression became the appelation for the island.

Okamoto's "Kabafuto" fears

Okamoto himself is said to have objected to Matsuura Takeshiro's proposal to write カラフト (karafuto) as 樺太. Okamoto seems to have feared that Japanese would read 樺太 as カバフト (kabafuto) and that カラ would be lost to future generations. He is said to have recommended that カラフト be written 柯太 (ka[ra]futo), in consideration of the Ainu belief that Hokkaido and Karafuto had once been a single island the gods had divided into two islands. Apparently he insisted on writing 柯太 on public documents during his period of service as the first governor of Karafuto, and 樺太 was used only after he left the post. (Source   This paragraph is based on an account posted on the website of the virtual government of a virtual "Karafuto City" whose virtual mayor remains anonymous. Most of the other theories mentioned here are also reviewed on this site.)

Okamoto was right. Some people read 樺太 wrong. A postcard of 1920s-1930s vintage, published by Hokushindo, read 樺太土人風俗 オロッコの美人 (Karafuto dojin fuzoku Orokko no bijin) and "THE MANNERS OF KABAFUTO NATVES (sic)" in English. However, the HOKUSHINDO logo reads KARAFUTO. As the Japanese (but not the English) declares, the picture shows two Orok (Uilta) beauties, dressed as perhaps natives might then have dressed, and barefoot.

The foldout map in Report on Progress in Manchuria, 1907-1928 (Dairen, March 1929) -- which bears the date and attribution "11thFeb., 1928   Drawn by U. Utsumi" -- shows the name of the entity south of the 50th parallel as KABAFUTO in contrast with SAGHALIEN to the north. This has become KARAFUTO on essentially the same map in the 3rd edition (June, 1932).

Shinichi Fujii, in The Essentials of Japanese Constitutional Law (Tokyo: Yuhikaku, 1940), the most important early introduction and commentary on Japanese law under the Meiji Constitution, refers to "Chosen, Taiwan, and Kabafuto" in a paragraph on how laws became effective in newly acquired territories (page 379). See Fujii on "Territory" in article on "Subnationality and integration" for entire text of Fujii's remarks.

Kojien, Japan's most widely used dictionary, includes an entry for かばふと (樺太 kabafuto), which sends the reader to からふと (樺太 karafuto). There is no entry for, nor mention of, 柯太 as a lexical item.

However, the graphs 柯太 in fact appear on maps and other materials published around the time of Okamoto's influence. Karafuto is variously referred to as as an island (柯太島 Karafutojima), a province (柯太州 Karafutoshu), and a country (柯太国 Karafuto no kuni). The graph 柯 is read "ka" in Sino-Japanese and "eda" in Japanese. It is a kind of tree but also means branch.

柯太州 was the appelation in editions of government approved geography texts and gazetteers like Nihon chishi ryaku (日本地誌略) published as late as 1887.

Wikipedia "river mouth" theory

The current Japanese Wikipedia story (viewed 8 April 2007) is that "karafuto" reflects "kar put" in the Ainu expression "kamuy kar put ya mosir" meaning "神が河口に造った島" (kami ga kawaguchi/kako ni tsukutta shima) or "island (mosir) of/at (ya) river's mouth (put) [that] gods (kamuy) made (kar)". This version has been translated into Chinese as 神在河口創造的島 (shen2 zai4 he2kou3 chuang4zao4 de dao3) or "island gods made in/at river's mouth".

The current English Wikipedia story (viewed 8 April 2007) states that Karafuto comes from "Kamuy-Kara-Puto-Ya-Mosir (Kara Puto)" which is supposed to mean ""God of mouth of water land". The entry goes on to say "The name was restored to the island by the Japanese during their possession of its southern part (1905-1945)" -- which is clearly not correct.

The island of Sakhalin does in fact descend south from where the Amur river (黒竜江 Heilongjiang) empties into the narrow Tartary Strait (J. Mamiya Strait), which separates Sakhalin from the continent while connecting the Sea of Okhotsk to the north with the Sea of Japan (K. Eastern Sea) to the south. The explorer Mamiya Rinzo (1780-1844) is credited with "discovering" the strait -- proving that Karafuto was an island -- during a survey of the region in 1808 and 1809.

Such attempts to make "Ainu sense" out of "karafuto" have spawned all manner of constructions -- like the rendering of 樺太庁 (Karafutocho) by a blogger as "Kamuy kar put ya mosir kotan" -- kotan meaning "village" or "settlement". While highly probably that "karafuto" does have native origins, its origins have yet to be firmly established.


Related territories