Japan: what's a prefecture?

I’ve noticed this in the recent news coverage of the Japan disasters: regional governments there appear to be called prefectures.

Why is this term used, rather than something like counties or municipalities? what powers do prefectures have?

There’s a wikipedia page on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prefectures_of_Japan.
The term originally comes from Latin, but is also a prominent feature of the French administrative system. So, I wouldnt be surprised if it came from the time Japan basically hired a lot of Western powers to modernize the country.

Basically it is an administrative division.

I wonder why someone wouldn’t just look at Wikipedia first before posting here. Isn’t that one of our guidelines? Just sayin’

Here’s my guess: the prefectures (県 - ken) could have been called “counties” in English, but they don’t exactly match the counties in either the U.K. or the U.S. They were established in 1871 as part of the modernising governmental reforms after the Meiji reformation.

The prefectures are the top level of administration below the national government: although they are grouped into regions, the regions have no governmental structure. Below the prefectures are several layers, including the municipalities. So, in many ways they are like the states of the United States or the provinces of Canada, but Japan is not a federal country, so it would be wrong to have called them “states”. On the other hand, they could have been called “provinces” – but weren’t.

I’m not aware that we have a guideline requiring a poster to look at Wikipedia before posting a question here. That would be a terrible rule, in my opinion.

And of course, while all ken are prefectures, the reverse is not true. There are three urban prefectures (Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto) and a regional (do), in addition to the 43 ken.

There’s such a diverse group here that it’s possible that posing the question here might get you some input from people who actually live (or have lived) in Japan and have practical experience dealing with the topic. That would give you a perspective that you wouldn’t get from Wikipedia (which is typically dry and aims to be as neutral as possible).

Does each prefecture have its own executive, in the same way that a U.S. state has a governor?

Yes. The Governor of Tokyo is a real charmer.

Each prefecture has a–wait for it–prefect. Prefecture is really a back-formation for the area administered by an official with the title of prefect.

“Back”-formation? Isn’t it just a regular old formation?

Don’t see a wiki requirement there, do you?

And, having skimmed the wiki article, it doesn’t answer my question: why are they called “prefectures”? Several Dopers, on the other hand, have taken a stab at it.

From the GQ Rules:

The relevant bits are in bold and underlined. Yes, there’s a rule that says that you should have fired up Google for something as simple as getting a definition. However, that rule carries the caveat that it’s kinda rude and unnecessary to belabor the point once it’s done.

Carry on.

Mmmmaybe. Anyway, the term “prefect” was the original word, and “prefecture” was coined to describe what a prefect was in charge of.

Yep, looks like a forward formation to me.

In the case of Japan, though, prefectures are headed by a “governor,” which is the commonly accepted translation of “kenchiji,” the Japanese title of the head office holder in a prefecture. “Governor” is also used for the heads of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Hokkaido.

As to why “prefecture,” I can offer some speculation that will have to do until someone who knows what they are talking about comes along. (And I am going to refer only to “ken” here for the sake of simplicity and ignore “-to” “-fu” and “-do”.)

According to Japanese Wikipedia (and I don’t know why you couldn’t be bothered to check Japanese Wikipedia before asking here, I mean fer cryin’out loud, it just takes a second, it should be a rule around here or somethin’ :D), the English translation comes either from Latin or French (“préfecture”), which is obvious to English speakers. The Japanese text then gives the meaning of the French word as “the official residence of the local official of a centralized national authority.”
I expect that “préfecture” in French also means the district governed by a prefect, etc., (I don’t speak French), but the Japanese definition given on the Wikipedia page definitely refers to “residence.” Now, why would they have adopted that particular term for a level of regional administration?

I can think of two possible explanations:

  1. Japanese Wikipedia is no more reliable than English Wikipedia, and the author of this article simply used the first definition of “préfecture” that popped up on his French-to-Japanese electronic dictionary without regard for the actual historical origin of the translation; or

  2. The replacement of the old “han” (“domain”) system with the new “ken” (“prefecture”) system didn’t change the fact that the first governors of the new prefectures were the previous regional rulers (daimyo) of the old “han” system, and those daimyo traditionally maintained large residences in these areas as their position as daimyo was hereditary, if ultimately derived at the pleasure of the old central government (“bakufu”). (With the change to “ken”, the old daimyo gave up the hereditary aspect of their positions.) Therefore, the word “prefecture” might have been chosen because it carries connotations of “residence” that other English words like “state” do not.

Of course, the actual reason is probably something else. I am just speculating.

Incidentally, the Japanese use the term “shu” to mean “states” in the U.S., like “Irinoi-shu”. (Illinois).

They also use the term “ken” (the term for “prefecture” in Japan as discussed above) when translating the following units of administration from other countries into Japanese (per Wikipedia):

Provincia (Italy)
Département (France)
县 (China- rendered in English as “county”)
Bezirk (apparently a term from the old East Germany, rendered as “district” in English)

I doubt that it’s about “residence” per se, but rather about a non-traditional primary administrative unit under the authority of a single official. If those units were named after the town in which that official was headquartered, then you have a “prefecture”.

If those units had a more traditional basis, and weren’t under the authority of a single official, then you might have a “county”. If those units had a more traditional basis, were perhaps larger, and had a “regional” name, then you’d perhaps have a “province” or a “governorate”.

That’s my $0.02 anyway…! :slight_smile:

Because “prefecture” sounds cool.

Also, isn’t there a difference based on whether the central government can create the second-level entities at will, or whether their existence and powers are set out by the constitution?