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Why does Japan have Prefectures?

In Japan, Japanese History on July 11, 2013 at 2:48 am

To-dō-fu-ken Metropolis, Prefecture, Prefecture, Prefecture.

Japan's 47 modern prefectures

Japan’s 47 modern prefectures

Yesterday’s post took something like 3 days to put together – and it’s not even finished. I don’t want to work myself to death like I was during my series on the Tokugawa funerary temples. So today I’ve chosen a topic that requires zero research[i].

Anyways, I get this question a lot from friends. Why does Japan use the word “prefecture?”

Well, Japan doesn’t use the word prefecture. Japan has a set of 4 words they use to describe these “states.”


ken prefecture

Of the current 47 prefectures, most use the word 県 ken prefecture; so, for example, 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Saitama Prefecture, 千葉県 Chiba-ken Chiba Prefecture, and 神奈川県 Kanagawa-ken Kanagawa Prefecture.

fu prefecture

2 prefectures uses the word 府 fu prefecture; 大阪府 Ōsaka-fu Ōsaka Prefecture 京都府 Kyōto-fu Kyōto Prefecture[ii].


1 prefecture uses 道 dō prefecture; 北海道 Hokkaidō Hokkaidō Prefecture. I’m hesitant to say “Hokkaidō Prefecture” because the “” is never separated from the word in Japanese or English, so Hokkaidō Prefecture would be back-translated into Japanese as 北海道道 Hokkaidōdō, which just sounds retarded[iii].

to metropolis

Finally, we have 都 to metropolis, of which there can only be one. And that is 東京都 Tōkyō-to Tōkyō Metropolis.

In the Edo Period, the Tokugawa shōgunate had a very restrictive foreign policy[iv]. At this time, relations with other countries were so irregular, that foreign countries had no standard for referring to the power structure or rulers of Japan. After the shōgunate fell and the Meiji court began its reforms in earnest, several problems became apparent.

1) How do we structure our government?

Assloads of doctoral theses have written on this topic in various languages all around the world, so I’m not going to even take a half-assed stab at describing this process in detail. But basically, the Japanese had been sending officials overseas to Europe and America to look at how education, government, international relations, business, and industry were being handled in those countries. These ambassadorial missions had begun in the final years of the Tokugawa regime and became regular when foreign relations became normalized under the Meiji regime.

Since the Meiji regime was centered on a divine emperor, they had a unique problem. While the American model was progressive, industrial, realistic, and had also overthrown a previous regime, America espoused states’ rights, separation of church and state[v], and it enfranchised voters; as such, it wasn’t a good match for this particular brand of revolutionary oligarchs[vi].

Prussia and Germany were parts of a massive Empire that spanned huge swaths of Europe. They were an imperialistic power (in that they were interested in military expansion) and they were an imperial power (in that they had an emperor at the top of their hierarchy). In the final days of the Tokugawa shōgunate, France had been trading and supplying weapons, training, and military help to the Japanese. France had been using the word préfecture since Napoleon’s time for its own major civil administrative units. Napoleon was seen by the Japanese ambassadorial legations as a revolutionary emperor who modernized and expanded France[vii].

2) How do we present ourselves to the world?

Now that for the first time since the European Age of Enlightenment, Japan had normalized relations with other countries and they were rapidly modernizing in an effort to catch up[viii] with the western powers that had pried open their clam. There was suddenly a problem. The major western powers they were dealing with were all speaking somewhat related languages, or had at least been dealing with one another for such a long period of time that they shared many political terms. Each country had standard vocabulary they could use in discussing another country. Japan was new to this game and with a language related to nothing outside of it besides China and Korea[ix], they had to think quickly of how they wanted to be perceived by the west.

In order to create a diplomatic language that showed Japan in a particular light, they decided upon a few things. First of all, as noted before, the Meiji government was all over the German and Prussian game because they sought to emulate the emperor-centric systems of those countries. They decided that the word 国会 kokkai national assembly should be translated into English in the same way as the German words Landtag (state parliament) and Reichstag (national parliament). They saw the German Empire as strong and historical and emperor-centric and it was good enough for them.

The second thing they chose was the word “prefecture.” They chose this for a number of reasons. First, as I mentioned before, they loooooved Napoleon. Secondly, there was a long standing precedent. When the Portuguese came to Japan in the 1500’s, they used the word prefeitura which translates easily into the language of any country with a history connected to the Roman Empire[x]. The term was Napoleonic and Roman. Thirdly, this term “prefecture” indicated – in no uncertain terms – that the governor of the area was appointed by the emperor. He wasn’t an elected official[xi]. And lastly, it didn’t carry any connotation of a quasi-independent “state.”  In particular, they didn’t want to be compared to those pesky states of the United States of America, some of which had recently exercised their perceived autonomy and attempted to secede and/or overthrow the government. It’s funny how governments that stage illegal coups do that[xii].

So the short answer is my challenge to you.

Can you summarize this explanation in 5 or less sentences?

I’ve never been able to do it.

If you can, yoroshiku onegai shimasu!!

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[i] OK, that’s not true. There’s a little fact checking going on here and there.
[ii] Longtime readers should be familiar with the former administrative unit 東京府 Tōkyō-fu Tōkyō Prefecture.
[iii] 道 dō is the word for North and South Korean provinces too. This word was also a common word for province names in classical China.
[iv] I’d say it was a closed country (鎖国 sakoku), but some people will insist Japan simply enacted a policy of restricting access to the sea (海禁 kaikin). But the effect was the same. The average Japanese and its rulers didn’t really give a shit about anything off its shores.
[v] In theory, lolololololololololol
[vi] A bunch of hereditary, entitled samurai got replaced by a mix of a different bunch of hereditary, entitled ex-samurai and a bunch of hereditary, entitled douchebags from Kyōto.
[vii] Even though in 1870 the Second French Empire collapsed, only to be replaced by a third government (yes, the one that Hitler bulldozed over in an astonishing 2 years’ time).
[viii] Meiji Japan modernized with lightning speed, but this was all part of a philosophy called 富国強兵 fukoku-kyōhei rich country strong army (which sounds like North Korea to me), and was part of the downward spiral into the theocratic fascism and imperialism that fueled the Pacific War.
[ix] Countries which they had respected in the past, but China had been debilitated by westerners and Korea tried to isolate itself (now a passé attitude in Japan).
[x] A system of prefects (appointed governors) and prefectures (areas governed by appointed governors). Areas that could understand this term easily included Europe, Russia, and North and South America – the only people the Japanese cared to impress at the time.

A side note: in the Roman Empire, a prefect is a præfectus and a prefecture is a præfectura.

[xi] This is totally different after WWII.
[xii] And by illegal coups, I’m looking at you, Chōshū, Satsuma, Tosa, and the fucking imperial court.

  1. I always wondered about this. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, so they choose it basically to differentiate themselves 🙂

  3. Thank you for a very insightful article! What references were used to write this (if any)?

    • This is generally common knowledge, but I also wrote it a few years ago, so I couldn’t give you specific references of the top of my head. Why do ask?

      • Thanks for replying! This article came up when I was researching the proper translation of todofuken into modern EU Portuguese for my Master’s dissertation. In Portugal we don’t use “prefeitura” to refer to our own modern geographical divisions, but Brazil does, so my teacher kind of bashed at me for using a “Brazilian” word, even though it was the one I’ve always seen regarding Japanese divisions, either in English or Portuguese. In short, I was just wondering if there were any specific sources you had used when writing the article (I didn’t even notice the post date, gomen nasai!)

      • That’s an interesting situation. I don’t have any specific dates/materials in front of me right now, but what I would say is that Brazil and Portugal wouldn’t have been very impressive to the Japanese military and aristocracy of the late 1860’s-1870’s. It seems like they weren’t even interested in Spain. They really gravitated towards Holland, Prussia, Germany, France, and in an almost obliging sense, the US.

      • That is true, but as you mentioned at the end of the article, when the Portuguese were in Japan in the 16th century they employed the word “prefeitura”, so in a way, among other factors, it would be something that Meiji era Japan took back from a previous international experience and applied, since it was a word that was pretty recognizable in any Western state. I didn’t mean to imply that the choide for the term “prefecture” was solely based on contacts with Portugal or Europe, I’m just trying to trace back the word “prefeitura” itself to see if it can apply to an accurate translation of “todoufuken” in modern EU Portuguese. 🙂

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