Until the modern era the Ainu people didn’t have any native written forms for their language to record their history. Today when dealing with premodern history of Ainu lands researchers have to use written sources on the languages of neighboring peoples – Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Manchu, or even of much more faraway Europeans who used to visit the islands of Okhotsk Sea in early modern and modern eras. Furthermore, the deeper we advance towards the ancient times, the more urgent become non-written sources provided by archaeology, linguistics, anthropology, folklore studies, and even genetics. Sometimes, however, such variety of types and languages provides historians with advantages instead of clouding the issue.
Russian settlement on the island of Urup
In early modern times both Russians and Japanese enhanced their advance into the Ainu lands – Hokkaido, Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. Particularly eventful was the turn of 18th and 19th centuries, or An’ei to Bunka eras in Japan.
After their first attempts to establish direct trade with Japanese on Hokkaido (in 1778-79 and 1792-93), Russians managed to obtain a permission to visit Nagasaki in southern Japan, the only port available for European vessels, which opened the way for the Russian embassy by Nikolai Rezanov in 1804-05. However, well before this, in 1794, a Russian merchant Shelikhov dispatched a crew of hunters and farmers on the island of Urup to establish a settlement in preparation for future trade with Japanese.
At the time Urup was a place for seasonal hunting, primarily on sea otters, by the Ainu from both northern and southern Kuril Islands and consequently without permanent residents, being only a meeting and trading spot for two groups. Shelikhov intended to develop these existing trading ties into the channel for Russia-Japan interaction.
The settlement in Russian sources
Although the settlement on Urup was a Russian endeavor, we have only a few records about it in Russian written sources. Shelikhov has described his project in a couple of letters dated by 1794 and died suddenly in the beginning of 1795 even before the crew could reach the island later in this year. Since that moment we meet no mentions of the settlement until Rezanov, as Shelekhov’s son-in-law and an heir, would try to find it in 1805 after his wasted visit to Nagasaki, but would fail to do it either. Later he dispatched two vessels under the command of Khvostov and Davydov to Japanese fisheries on Sakhalin and southern Kuril Islands and ordered to collect information about Russians on Urup. Two officers failed to locate the settlement but obtained detailed evidence about their activities during the previous decade from Japanese officials on the neighboring island of Iturup.
The settlement in Japanese sources
Japanese officials gathered reliable information about Russian settlement on Urup during their expedition to the eastern Ainu lands (northeast Hokkaido and southern Kuril Islands) in 1798-99. A squad led by Juzo Kondo reached Iturup and learned from local Ainu that they had have dynamic interactions with Russians on Urup from 1795, exchanging some Japanese goods (rice, sake and tobacco) for Russian clothes, fabrics and furs.
Reports by Juzo Kondo provide detailed information about this trade and Russians’ situation on Urup. This island laid off the regular sea route connected the port of Okhotsk with Aleutian Islands via Kamchatka, and only special orders could make captains visit this distant place, though they could always find excuses by pleading the bad weather. Thus, soon after dispatch Russians have lost communication and supplies from the continent. While in the beginning they could obtain some goods from Ainu, later this channel would also be cut. But even before that a large group of hunters had left the island while those who stayed had moved to another coast. Both Russian and Japanese sources provide the lists of names of Russian settlers, and comparative study allows to clear who belonged to each group.
Historical significance of the settlement on Urup
Masayasu Habuto, a bakufu governor in Hakodate, revealed in his book “Kyumei koki” the discussion among Japan’s officials on how to expel Russians from Urup after Juzo Kondo’s reports. Finally, they decided to ban Iturup Ainu from trips to Urup for hunting and trading with Russians and Ainu from northern and middle Kurils. This has broken ties that connected two Ainu groups for centuries, though allowed Japanese to prevent Russian advance southward and predetermined the future border between the two states.
The case of Russian settlement on Urup shows how important is a critical comparative study of all available sources in different languages, especially in the historical study of such border region and contact zone as the Ainu lands.
（Vasilii Shchepkin Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, Russian Academy of Sciences）
The reported study was funded by RFBR, project number 20-09-00401