Japan: what's a prefecture?

Yeah, Shintaro’s a right wing idiot. This is the same guy who stuck his foot in his mouth again a couple of weeks ago during the worst of the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, while people were dying by the thousands, by basically saying that the tsunami was divine intervention the Japanese people deserved because of their inherent selfishness.

Here’s Shintaro’s quote in Japanese; it loses some of its sliminess when translated into English: 「日本人のアイデンティティーは我欲。この津波をうまく利用して我欲を1回洗い落とす必要がある。やっぱり天罰だと思う。」*

* The Japanese people are identified by selfishness. We should take advantage of this tsunami to at once wash away all of the selfish. I think this is our divine punishment after all.A few days later he apologized for the statement, but it was too little too late. Just goes to show that even the most forward thinking countries elect jerks from time to time.

Back to the OP. Sorry for the hijack.

We’ll have to keep waiting for that expert, but that won’t stop me from speculation as well.

Yesterday when I spend hours and hours researching this, (OK, 30 minutes on Japan Google) the second explanation occurred to me. The first may have occurred to me has I checked the Japanese wikipidia, but I was googling the question in Japanese (which also should be a rule) and then when this happened.

All I can say conclusively is that Japanese answer sites (ask Yahoo, et al) (another rule!) is that ordinary Japanese don’t have any better idea.

As wellarull mentions, the change from han to ken occurred in 1871, which was still right in the middle of the turbulent years of the complete shake up the the Japanese society when it threw off the feudal system of samurai and jumped into modernization. The government had to fight off various rebellions, and the loyalty of the former daimyo wasn’t completely sure.

How much of that has anything to do with the English term, though, will have to be answered by someone with more knowledge.

To touch on some parts of this that I don’t think were addressed in the previous responses:

Japan already has jurisdictional units equivalent to counties and municipalities (the counties in particular are essentially powerless, though).

As to what powers prefectures have… I don’t really know and haven’t been able to come up with a good answer. My impression has always been that they have very little independent power and are generally just there to administer decisions made by the central government.

ETA: I found a translation of the section of the current Local Autonomy Law (the law which establishes the prefectures)

So yeah… the central government decides and the prefectures “administer” those decisions.

On the translation issue: it might be significant that when the prefectures were first established there were hundreds of them. They were much smaller than the kuni, the traditional provinces that the Japanese would likely have considered the nearest equivalent to “states”.

Damn, I was hoping you would know more about this and the history.

We may be out of luck on this one.

If I may offer a WAG as to why they’re called “prefectures” and not something else when translated into foreign languages, the dominant language of diplomacy when the change took place was still French.

The name for the old fiefdoms is from French, the name for the new structure replacing them is from French as well. The names then got translated from French into English by simply picking the English word that’s most similar to the French one - not the word which would have been chosen if the first translation had been into English.

It’s a common process in translation: documents that need to be translated into several languages get translated into one and then from this one into every other language that’s needed. Nowadays this “middleman” is English, but back when han became ken, it was French. The name was not chosen because of “influence from French”, it’s a translation issue.

As I said earlier, Japan hired a lot of Western countries during its modernizing run in the second part of the XIX th century. One of the countries used was France, which moderized the Japanese army(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Military_Mission_to_Japan_(1867) )
“The Last Samurai” story is actually a French guy’s story(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jules_Brunet).

The French civil code system, was also the model used by the Meijis.

from the Law of Japan wiki page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_Japan):

So, given, that, at a time, Japan used the French institutions as models for its owns, it’ s not a surprise that the term used in the translation (or maybe the re-definition) would be a French one. I dont think it had anything to do with French’s place as a diplomatic language.
By the way, a Prefecture in France is an administrative unit, headed by a Prefect, who is the direct relay of the central power. Prefect answers directly to the capital and are usually there to check on local powers, and also to implement national policies. It is different from the Departement, which is a local administrative division, way more akin to a county, and has locally elected representatives at its head.
Hence the difference between a county and a prefecture, they dont work the same way. One’s a central power relay, the other a local power division.

I think we may have been going about this the wrong way… doing a search of 19th century books on Google Books, I found numerous cases of “prefecture” used as the English term for the administrative unit in China written with the character 縣 (the same character used for Japanese prefectures).

I’m thinking they just copied the existing Chinese translation.

I was right! It took cckerberos to get us on the right track.

It does look like the first creation of 県 (using the simplified kanji) was in 1868, when the Imperial government took over the land which had been under direct control of the bakufu government, and predates the 1871 order for all remaining han to become ken.

The modeling of the government on Germany and France which Capitaine Zombie refers to occurred a decade later, and may not be as influential as the China model.

I was just down in Taiwan and that they use the same term didn’t occur to me to make the connection.

It case it would be unclear :

The administrative division is the departement (say, equivalent to a county). It has both an elected council (Conseil General) and a prefect.

The “conseil general” is the local governing body. The prefect is appointed by the state and represents it in the “departement”. He has all the authority belonging to the state, but none of the authority devolved to local governing bodies(“departement” council and municipalities councils)

For instance, the prefect heads all national services in the area (can include public works, social services, IRS, whatever), applies locally the policies of the national executive, and oversees the actions of the local elected bodies (for instance he will bring to the attention of a mayor that one of his recent decision was illegal, and act accordingly to have it voided). He has a variety of others duties. For instance, you’ll go to the “prefecture” to get a passport, the prefect will coordinate action in case of disaster, give medals, keep in touch with the local “gendarmerie” forces or even the military, etc…

“Prefecture” in France refers to the building where the offices of the prefect are situated or to his residence if it’s a separate place. It doesn’t refer to the area he’s in charge of (which is called “departement” as already mentioned).

Following up, the period immediately proceeding the “restoration” of emperor, and the early years of the administration were quite turbulent, including a rebellion or two. The collection of groups who were involved in overthrowing the bakufu (government led by the shogun) obviously had varying aims and interests, which evolved over this period.

Because no single han was strong enough to take on the bakufu themselves, it took a collection of the strongest ones to make it possible. Rallying around the banner of emperor (who traditionally did not have actual political power) was a politically calculated step to gain more people onto their side.

They pro “imperial” forces never intended to actually turn real political power over to the emperor, but to form an oligarchy as the administration in the emperor’s government.

The rallying cry of this collection was Sonnō jōi (尊皇攘夷, Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians), which was useful in order to gather more people into the anti-bakufu camp.

In 1868, the transition to an imperial system was just starting, the Boshin War was still currently being fought, and the end of the Tokugawa family was still not certain.

As part of the strategy of the Satsuma - Choshu alliance, they removed land had directly been under the control of the Tokugawa family and bakufu administration, and rather than dividing it up among themselves, which would have cost them support by the other daimyo, they placed it under the emperor, while maintaining control of it as the oligarchy who ran the administration. Slick.

As the idea in the final years of the 1860s and the early 1870s, was to create a centralization of power based on imperial system, it makes sense for them to look to China as a model of imperial (emperor-run) power. If this WAG is correct, then it would be understandable that this is the reason they borrowed the term 県 for the land confiscated from the Tokugawa family.

My (brief) study of this subject supports cckerberos theory, but it would be interesting if others have more insight.