It began as a small Russian settlement called Vladimirovka, founded by convicts in 1882. The Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905, which brought an end to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, awarded the southern half of the Sakhalin Island to Japan. Vladimirovka was renamed Toyohara (meaning "bountiful plain"), and was the prefect capital of Japanese Karafuto Prefecture.
After the end of World War II, the Japanese portion of Sakhalin island was occupied by Soviet troops. Ownership of the city transferred back to the Soviet Union and it was renamed Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Town status was granted to it in 1946