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Prefectures/県(都道府県)

During tours, I get intersting questions from tourists visiting Japan. Here are the answers to the questions that I got stumped by!

Q: Why are some regions in Japan called prefectures?

Forty-three out of forty-seven regions are called prefectures-in Japanese,’ ken’ ,which is translated as prefecture. There are a few reasons why the word was chosen, but not ‘province’.

One is that Portuguese explorers and traders travelling around Japan in the 16th century called the areas they visited prefectures (prefeitura). It translates into the language of any country with a history connected to the Roman Empire.

The French started trading and supplying weapons, training, and giving military help to the Japanese in the 19th century. They had also been used the word prefécture since Napoleon’s time for its own major civil administrative units. Napoleon was highly respected by the Japanese as a revolutionary emperor.

At that time, those areas were called ‘han’ in Japanese. Han were headed by feudal lords, or ‘daimyo’. The han system was abolished in 1871 after a political and social revolution called the Meiji Restoration took place. It ended the power of the Tokugawa shogun (the equivalent of today’s government ) and returned the Emperor to a central position in Japanese politics and culture.

When han were being abolished and established into prefectures, a number of regions received the suffix ‘ken’. Those areas were headed by local governors.

Q: What are the other four regions called?

Tokyo, the capital city of Japan, is called ‘Tokyo-to’. ‘To’ means capital. Before Tokyo became a capital, it was called ’Edo’.

Osaka and Kyoto have a suffix, ‘fu’ , so their full names are Osaka-fu and Kyoto-fu. ‘Fu’ roughly means a military and political base or an urban city. Osaka was the economic centre and Kyoto was where the Emperor resided around the time of the Meiji Restoration.. At one point, Tokyo was also called Tokyo-fu.

Hokkaido is the only area that has ‘ do’ in its name. There used to be seven ‘do’ ,or provinces in mainland Japan. (Sanyo-do, Tokai-do, Hokuriku-do, and so on.) The suffix ‘do’ remained only in Hokkaido. If Hokkaido were called Hokkaido-ken like the other ken, it would mean Northern Sea province prefecture. Therefore, ken was omitted.

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