The Kuril Islands and the Products of Greater Japan

While Ainu-e typically centered the culture and experiences of the Hokkaido Ainu, this print shows an image of the Kuril community. The Kuril Islands span some 800 miles from temperate Hokkaido in the south to subarctic Kamchatka in the north.1 Though lacking the forests and rivers essential to life on Sakhalin and Hokkaido, Kuril communities drew from the Sea of Okhotsk’s rich marine life for food, clothing, and income. Sea otters in particular were an important trade commodity, and the Kurils were home to some of the largest colonies in the region. In fact, Kuril sea otter furs were regarded as a luxury in both Asia and Europe, and the fur trade was a major factor in Russia’s expansion into the Amur-Okhotsk region in the eighteenth century, where they partnered with Sakhalin and Kuril Ainu hunters and established trading settlements.2 Concerned by Russia’s territorial ambitions and unregulated trade with the Ainu, Japan founded its own trading posts in the southern Kurils, and for the next century both nations vied for regional influence. In 1875 Russia ultimately ceded its claims in return for control over Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands were formally incorporated into Japan as Chishima Province.3

Made by the Utagawa Hiroshige III as part of his series Products of Greater Japan—which showcased Meiji Japan’s technological developments at the 1877 First National Industrial Exposition—Catching Sea Otter in Chishima Province depicts the lucrative Kuril fur industry.4 It shows an Ainu trapping party catching sea otters near the island of Urup, while the accompanying text details how teams of hunters would venture out in search of their bounty. Catching Sea Otter in Chishima Province not only offers a glimpse into the customs of the often-underrepresented Kuril community, but it also shows the colonial processes that disrupted these once-autonomous spaces. The Kuril Ainu were particularly hard-hit by Japanese and Russian colonization, and in 1945, along with the Ainu of southern Sakhalin, were expelled by Soviet military forces. Even today many of their descendants continue to live on Hokkaido, unable to return to their ancestral lands.5 Works featuring Kuril Ainu communities are generally few in number, and prints such as Catching Sea Otter in Chishima Province are key to understanding both the customs of the Kuril Ainu at the turn-of-the-last-century, as well as the historical processes that led to the gradual erasure of the Kuril Ainu a distinct cultural group.

For more information on this print and the series Products of Greater Japan, please see Mr. Lavenberg’s website:

1.) Hans Dieter Ölschliger, “Technology, Settlement, and Hunting Ritual” in Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People, 217.

2.) Brett Walker, The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion, 1590-1800 (Berkeley, C.A.: University of California Press, 2001): 157.

3.) Mikhail Vysokov, A Brief History of Sakhalin and the Kurils (Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia: Sakhalin Book Publishing House LIK, 1996): 52.

4.) David Howell, Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan (Berkeley, C.A.: University of California Press, 2005): 186.

5.) Vysokov, A Brief History of Sakhalin and the Kurils, 78.

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