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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.

What does Kudanshita mean?

In Japanese History on July 3, 2013 at 2:00 am

Kudanshita (Bottom of the 9 Levels, more at Bottom of the 9 Level Hill)

Cherry blossoms along the outer moat of Edo Castle.

Cherry blossoms along the outer moat of Edo Castle.

First of all, before we look at this name. I want to give a well-deserved thank you to Eric at Jcastle. Before I had seen an illustration of the Edo Era area, I had a hard time visualizing the stone wall constructions mentioned herein. But sight unseen, by the name he was able to identify the type of construction and explain it clearly and concisely. Much respect.

OK, so this place name is a vestige of a set of well-known place names in the Edo Period that became better known in the Meiji Era. The train station in the Kudanshita area made this place name the dominant name of the area since the 1960’s.

The kanji are:

kyuu/ku nine
dan level, stair
shita bottom

The second kanji is most well-known as the second character in the word 階段 kaidan stairway/stairs.

OK, so in the Edo Period, there was a big ass hill that led up from 飯田町 Iidamachi. Keeping in mind the yamanote vs. shitamachi dynamic, Iidamchi was a shitamachi town for commoners and the top of the hill was a yamanote area for samurai. Originally, the hill’s name was 飯田町中坂 Iidamachi Nakazaka.

Going up the face of the hill, the shōgunate built a residence for officials who were working in Edo Castle, but the pitch of the hill was so steep that they had to reinforce it with stone walls and stairs that ascended the hill in 9 levels.

Anyhoo, from my understanding, these were low ranking bureaucrats and so the residence wouldn’t have been anything very special. It was a essentially a barracks, which was nothing more than glorified 長屋 nagaya rowhouses. The only thing unique about it was the 9 levels (stairs, if you will) and the 9 levels of stone walls. Because of this unique feature, the building came to be known as the 九段屋敷 Kudan Yashiki 9 Levels Residence. The hill also came to be called 九段坂 Kudanzaka the 9 Levels Hill.

Iidamachi Nakazaka

Iidamachi Nakazaka
(click for larger size)

A close up. You can clearly see the 9 levels of the walls of the barracks and the 9 large steps going up the hill.

A close up. You can clearly see the 9 levels of the walls of the barracks and the 9 large steps going up the hill.

Fast forward to the Meiji Period, the daimyō are kicked out of their Edo palaces and the 旗本 hatamoto, direct retainers of the Tokugawa shōgun family are evicted from their barracks and all the shōgun’s holdings in Edo are confiscated by imperial court. The Kudan Residence was either demolished or repurposed (I’m not sure which, to be honest). And the top of the hill was cleared for the construction of 2 new important structures.

The first was the 灯明台 tōmyōdai, a lighthouse built in Meiji 4 (1871) to help safely guide in fishing boats into Tōkyō Bay. The standard word for lighthouse is 灯台 tōdai, but this one has a religious nuance to it.  灯明 tōmyō refers to an offering of light to the gods. The reason for the religious overtones will become obvious very soon.

Tomyodai in the Meiji Period

Tomyodai in the Late Meiji or Taisho.

Painting of the Tomyodai in action

Painting of the Tomyodai in action

Tomyodai as it looks today

Tomyodai as it looks today

Tomyo usually refers to this. (I took this picture at Zojo-ji)

Tomyo usually refers to this.
(I took this picture at Zojo-ji, just wanted to explain what tomyo means)

The final years of the bakumatsu was marked by a 2 year civil war between supporters of the Tokugawa shōgunate and the über lame imperial army[i] called the 戊辰戦争 Boshin Sensō Boshin War. After putting down the samurai insurgency, the imperial court built a shrine on the top of the hill to enshrine those who had died fighting in service of the emperor. As the Empire of Japan waged wars of Imperialism, the shrine became the main shrine for the war dead of Japan. The shrine is called 靖国神社 Yasukuni Jinja Yasukuni Shrine[ii]. The shrine is akin to Arlington Cemetery in the United States as a place where people can reflect on the service of people who died in military service of their country. Supposedly, this is the only shrine at which the Emperor of Japan bows.

The haiden (main hall/front hall) of Yasukuni Shrine. On most occasions, this is the closest you'll get.

The haiden (main hall/front hall) of Yasukuni Shrine.
On most occasions, this is the closest you’ll get.

The honden (inner sanctuary). This is where the war dead are "actually" enshrined.

The honden (inner sanctuary). This is where the war dead are “actually” enshrined.
My understanding is that this was the main structure of the shrine until 1901 when the haiden (front hall) was built.
Today, this building (renovated) is generally inaccessible.

The honden as it looks today.

The honden as it looks today.
This is from Yasukuni’s website so it’s a small picture.
People usually aren’t allowed in past the front hall (haiden) so your chances of seeing this building are next to none.

Yasukuni Shrine wouldn’t be anything particularly interesting outside of Japan, except that in 1969 and 1978, some of the right-wing leaning priests secretly elected to enshrine more than a 1000 people convicted of war crimes in WWII. The list included 14 Class A war criminals[iii]. Later when the documents were made public, the shit hit the fan in Korea and China and the shrine has been at the center of controversy ever since.

In 1965, a tiny wooden shrine called 鎮霊社 Chinreisha Spirit Pacifying Shrine was built. This shrine includes two separate places of enshrinement. One honors the war dead who fought against the emperor in the Boshin War (including the Shinsengumi, Shōgitai, and the forces of Aizu Domain) as well as those who died in defense of Japan in any form since 1853 when the Americans forced the country open. The other is dedicated to all war dead everywhere, regardless of nationality and era[iv]. It even includes those who fought against Japan[v].

The Chin-chin Reisha. I've heard this isn't always open to visitors, especially when the controversy pops up in the news as it does from time to time. Because of the enshrinement of the enemies of Japan, some Japanese right-wingers get pissed off about it.  And because of the enshrinement of the enemies of Japan, sometimes the Chinese and Koreans get pissed off about it.

The Chin-chin Reisha.I’ve heard this isn’t always open to visitors, especially when the controversy pops up in the news as it does from time to time.
Because of the enshrinement of the enemies of Japan,
some Japanese right-wingers get pissed off about it.
And because of the enshrinement of the enemies of Japan,
some Chinese and Koreans get pissed off about it.
FFS, it’s just shack in the woods behind the shrine.

OK, so we’re waaaaaaaaaaay off track now. But anyways, that’s the tie-in with the lighthouse. The original Yasukuni Shrine was built in 1869 and the lighthouse was built just outside of the temple precincts in 1871. Both locations quickly became new Tōkyō landmarks. The lighthouse was a western import showcasing Japan’s mastery of foreign technology, the shrine was a traditional building that reinforced the idea of loyalty to the emperor and respect for ancestors who died defending him. The location was on one of the highest hills near 東京城 Tōkyō-jō Tōkyō Castle[vi], again reinforcing the supremacy of the emperor with technological, religious and military symbolism. Well played, Mr. Emperor. Well played.


Another view of the hill and the moat.  Note the walls on the right side.

Another view of the hill and the moat.
Note the walls on the right side.

The name Kudanzaka was applied to the area for a long time. And even today there still exist a 九段北 Kudan Kita North Kudan and 九段南 Kudan Minami South Kudan (north and south being geographical references and having nothing to do with the hill, of course). In 1964, a subway station was built at the bottom of the Kudanzaka (Kudan Hill). The station name was 九段下 Kudanshita Bottom of Kudan and since then the name has come to be applied to the whole area.




[i] Worst uniforms EVER.

[ii] Yasukuni means “peaceful country” but is often translated as “pacifying the country.” Kinda ironic given the Meiji Era is the beginning of Japanese expansion and imperialism which is – by definition – not peaceful.

[iii] Not including George Bush and Dick Cheney because (1) they’re not dead and (2) they didn’t serve the emperor of Japan.

[iv] I wonder if that includes the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions of the Roman Empire. I mean, they did die in war…. Hmmm, makes you think.

[v] It’s not famous, though. Most Tōkyōites have never heard of it.

[vi] When the city’s name changed from Edo to Tōkyō, the castle’s name changed too.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples, Tokugawa Shogun Graves, Travel in Japan on June 18, 2013 at 2:22 am

Tokugawa Yoshinobu
 (Auspiciously Awesome Virtuous River[†])
15th Shōgun, Lord Tokugawa Yoshinobu
Yanaka Cemetery

Tokugawa Yoshinobu. The Last Shōgun

Tokugawa Yoshinobu.
A Real Shōgun.

It is with a very bittersweet feeling that I write this blog.

My interest in Japanese history was started by a desire to visit all the graves of the 15 Tokugawa shōguns. I’ve been in Japan for about 8 years and I’ve visited all the graves but the private ones at Kan’ei-ji. I thought writing this blog would be cathartic. I thought it would bring me full circle, but it hasn’t. Although I know much more now than I did a month or so ago when I started this series, I have even more questions now.

To make things worse, halfway through the series, the shōgunate imposed austerity measures which cut back on the building of new temple-like mausolea. This brought the series to a grinding halt in terms of new funerary content[i]. If you go back through the series you will see a noticeable development in burial types which culminated in Ienobu and Ietsugu’s magnificent mausolea at Zōjō-ji.

Sadly, little remains of the structures at Kan’ei-ji and Zōjō-ji. This definitely makes me appreciate the beauty and majesty of Tōshō-gū and Taiyūin at Nikkō all the more. I hope you can appreciate them in a new light as well. And if you visit Kan’ei-ji and Zōjō-ji here in Tōkyō, I hope you walk around all of the former temple precinct with smartphone in hand so you can check my pictures and maps. A few readers have said they’ve done this and… well… if you don’t think that’s exciting, then I don’t know why you’re reading my blog. lol

Yoshinobu loved photography. He also loved to ham it up in front of the camera. I'd love to see his "private stash" of photos, if you know what I mean....

Yoshinobu loved photography.
He also loved to ham it up in front of the camera.
Dude was a player, so I’d love to see his “private stash” of photos,
if you know what I mean….

So yeah… We’re at the last shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. The Meiji Era historians started a tradition which pictured him as a puppet of a failed regime. The man himself actually lived a full life outside of the public square. Yes, he was the last shōgun. Yes, he gave power (back?) to the emperor. Yes, he represented the losing side of this epoch. But, he wasn’t a pawn. He wasn’t a puppet. He wasn’t a loser.

It’s fun to speculate. What if Yoshinobu had been made shōgun instead of the 12 year old ass hat, Iemochi? How would things have gone down in the final days of the Tokugawa Shōgunate?

We’ll never know.

The last shōgun, handed the reins of government to the imperial court in November of 1867 at Nijō Castle in Kyōto. The dude was asked to take the worst job in the country and he did it. He totally rose to the occasion. In my estimation, Yoshinobu took the shit job, took the shame that came with it, wasn’t executed and lived the rest of his life in privacy and humility. He didn’t do interviews or write books. He never exerted himself into politics.

I don't know if this is when he was actually shogun, or if he was just cosplaying.

I don’t know if this is when he was actually shogun,
or if he was just cosplaying.

Yoshinobu was originally born into the Mito Tokugawa family, which held a particular view of Japanese history that was uniquely Emperor-centric. It held that the shōgun’s powers over the state (天下 tenka the realm – “heaven and earth”) had been granted by the Emperor and as such, the shōgun was an agent of the emperor. To oppose the emperor was treason. Yoshinobu tried to avoid directly confronting the imperial court (and the de facto imperial army – itself a revolutionary force).

In quiet submission to the emperor, Yoshinobu lived well into the Meiji Period. One of the sources I’ve looked at for this series was a Tōkyō guide book written in 1913 which mentioned that Yoshinobu was still alive and well in the ancestral lands of the Tokugawa, Shizuoka. Unfortunately for the authors for the authors of the book or for Yoshinobu himself, the former shōgun died in November of that same year[ii].

But keep in mind, Yoshinobu intentionally humbled himself in submission to the emperor. Any honors that were bestowed upon him and his family were quietly and humbly received[iii]. He lived out most of his life fucking elite bitches and pursuing his hobby of photography. His lawful wife was a court noblewoman named Mikako. And although Yoshinobu stayed out of politics, he was very close to the imperial court. The emperor gave his family rank in the peerage system and granted him his own branch family, separate from the shamed 徳川将軍家 Tokugawa Shōgun-ke Shōgunal Tokugawa Family[ii.1], his new branch was the 徳川慶喜家 Tokugawa Yoshinobu-ke the Yoshinobu Branch of the Tokugawa Family.

Old man Yoshinobu.

Old man Yoshinobu.

Then he died.

What to do, what to do?

They could have enshrined him with the other shōguns at Zōjō-ji or Kan’ei-ji. But that might have been presumptuous. So in humility, he was buried in what is now Yanaka Cemetery, where many Tokugawa relatives were buried from the Edo Period until present – but it is quite a distance from the shōgunal funerary temples. He was buried in accordance to Shintō practice, which showed respect for the emperor who was a Shintō kami. It was also in keeping with his Mito upbringing which showed deference to the lead Shintō kami, ie; the emperor. Therefore, Yoshinobu doesn’t have a kaimyō or ingō. His “conversion” to Shintō from Buddhism may have been for show, but his funerary rites were carried out in the Shintō fashion. Of all the shōguns, Yoshinobu’s is the only grave of this type.

So now that we’ve seen the most elegant Buddhist and Shintō mixed graves, what does a pure “shintō grave” look like? Well, let’s look what the graves of the Meiji emperor, the Taishō emperor and the Shōwa emperor looked like.

The Meiji Emperor's grave

The Meiji Emperor’s grave

The Taisho Emperor's grave.

The Taisho Emperor’s grave.

The Showa Emperor's grave

The Showa Emperor’s grave

Now let’s take a look at Yoshinobu’s grave.


Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s graveyard.
There are two burial mounds visible.
One is Yoshinobu, the other is his lawful wife.Tokugawa Mikako (née Ichijo Mikako).

Yoshinobu's burial mound.

Yoshinobu’s burial mound.

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[†] Since I’ve been “translating” the posthumous names of the shōguns, for consistency’s sake I had to give Yoshinobu’s name a shot. It just so happens that his name is particularly cool. 

[i] New Funerary Content is copyrighted, btw. It will also go on  a t-shirt.

[ii] Ironically on the day I got married

[ii.1] Remember, the shogun family line had ended, this is what brought about the succession crisis that resulted in Yoshinobu’s elevation to shōgun. As shōgun, he was also head of the Tokugawa Shōgun Family. As head of his own cadet branch of the family, he and his descendants would be free from any shame attached to the old regime. (But in reality, there was no stigma attached to the family whose glorious family temples were among the finest sites in the city of Edo and Tōkyō).

[iii] And to be sure, honors were conferred upon him. Under the stupid Meiji system of peerage, he was granted the highest level rank of duke.

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