Regional Differences: A Look into Japan’s Prefectures

Japan has a long and well-documented history. Many texts have traced the history of the nation to as far back as the 1st century from which historians have been able to make many conclusions about the origins of their nation. From the early days of imperial governance, where they invaded countries like Korea to the technologically advanced nation that we know today, Japan’s long history is also attributed to its geography and regions. The modern classification of these regions is called prefectures.

Why Japan Refers to Its Regions as Prefectures

The history of these prefectures can be traced all the way back to the start of the Meiji Era. when Japan had finally ended its long isolation from the world.This was the time when Japan had started to send more and more ambassadors to both Europe and America to look at what they could learn from the outside world. These emissaries would then look at various aspects of the countries, such as governance, business, and industrialization, in order for them to relay the information to the Japanese government. The government during the Meiji Era was controlled by the Divine Emperor. This has to lead the country to shy away from American ideals such as democracy and civil rights because these were used to overthrow the previous regime. The Meiji Era regime had found its ideal in the country of France, who was then led by Napoleon Bonaparte. They had seen Napoleon as a revolutionary leader who was able to bring France into a new era of modernization and expansion. One of the many things taken from the French style of governance was the use of the word préfecture, the term used to describe France’s major administrative units.

The use of the word prefecture was very important in the growing international relations of Japan. By that time, countries of both Europe and America have been in constant interaction, which resulted in a smaller hurdle in terms of communication. As an imperial nation that has only recently opened its doors to the world, the burden was on Japan to adapt to the other nations. The translation of their political language into one understood by western countries was of great significance. The word prefecture was used to describe the various areas controlled by governors appointed by the Emperor. The word prefecture was perfect for the type of governance present in the Meiji Era regime, as it describes a place not governed by an elected official and it had no implication of being a state, a term which was used by the Americans.

A Map of Japan:  English and Kanji Names of Prefectures

So how does Japan call its own Prefectures? In fact, the term “prefectures” is only used when translating Japanese. The local terminology for the Japanese prefecture is split into 4 different words - To, Do, Fu, and Ken. The Japanese refer to each prefecture by attaching the corresponding suffix to the name. Kyoto prefecture is referred to as Kyoto-Fu when written in Kanji. Shizuoka prefecture is referred to as Shizuoka-Ken in Kanji.

To (都), which translates to a metropolis, is the prefecture of Tokyo (東京都). The Japanese government refers to Tokyo city as Tokyo-o or Tokyo Metropolis. Tokyo was once classified as a Fu prefecture but after the abolishment of the previous system, the city and the surrounding areas were combined into the To classification. The previous wards of old Tokyo, as well as neighboring towns and villages, were then reclassified as special wards. Today, Tokyo is known throughout the world as a bustling metropolis where many major Japanese corporations, such as Hitachi and SoftBank, are based.

Do (道), which roughly translates to a circuit, is a term for the administrative division of a region. This is unique to the Chinese and Japanese language and is only used by the former in modern times. Originally, there were multiple regions with the Do suffix, but today, only one remains. Hokkaido (北海道) was not even originally a single prefecture. Originally, it was split into three; Sapporo, Hakodate, and Nemuro. It was only in 1947 that three were merged to form Hokkaido.

Fu (府)  is a term only used for Osaka (大阪府) and Kyoto (京都府). Fu is an administrative term for a highly developed urban region of national significance. Only Osaka and Kyoto retain this title as both have historically served a great purpose for the country in culture, politics, and economy.

The last term, ken (県), encompasses all the other prefectures. 43 of the 47 prefectures have this suffix, which contains a rural connotation. An example of these would be Fukuoka Prefecture (福岡県), Fukushima Prefecture (福島県), and Wakayama Prefecture (和歌山県).

Listing Down Japan’s Top 3 Prefectures by Size

Japan, much like any archipelago, has many different cultures and regions. From the small region of Kagawa-ken to large expanse of Hokkaido, the size of each of Japan’s prefectures contributes largely to how each area has developed culturally and economically. The following are the top 5 largest prefectures of Japan.

1. Hokkaido

With a landmass of 83,457 sq. km, this region is not only the largest prefecture in Japan, but is also the second largest island in the country.  Hokkaido is located in the northernmost area of the country, near Russia, and has a great expanse of coastal plains and mountainous regions. With the combination of cold sea winds from all directions and high altitudes, Hokkaido experiences cool summers and cold winters. The temperature here can go up to 22 degrees celsius during the month of August and as low as -12 degrees celsius during the month of December. The main industries in this prefecture are tourism and agriculture.

2. Iwate-Ken

Located on the island of Honshu, Iwate-ken is the second largest prefecture in the country. It was determined to have a landmass of 15,278 sq. km. The prefecture is situated between the Pacific Ocean and the Ou Mountains. This unique geography has resulted in a strong mining and fishing industry. However, with many changes in the governance and economy of the nation, the local economy shifted to the manufacturing of semiconductors.

3. Fukushima-Ken

Located on the island of Honshu, Fukushima prefecture has a landmass of  13,782 sq. km. This island has been known to the world for the 2011 earthquake and the resulting nuclear crisis. Though it had gone through quite a struggle during those times, this prefecture is currently experiencing much support both locally and internationally. Many of its inhabitants are looking to the future with concepts and innovations being created to ensure the economic return of the prefecture. This prefecture is the southernmost point in the greater Tohoku area and is divided by mountains. This prefecture has many geographic aspects to it that make the area very unique. The Hamadori region is closest to the Pacific Ocean and can be described by the abundance of plains and temperate climate. The Nakadori region, where the capital city is located, where the core agricultural areas of the prefecture lie. The Aizu region, with its lush mountains and beautiful lakes, is the most scenic of the three.

Ace That Quiz on Japanese Population by Looking at its Relation to the Prefectures

The year 2017 has determined that Japan has an estimated population of 126,760,000, which makes it the 10th most populated country in the world. Tokyo-To is by far the most populated prefecture in the country. With a total population of 13,195,974, Tokyo-To beats Kanagawa-Ken, with a population of 9,058,094, by more than 4 million in terms of population. Osaka-Fu takes the third place as the most populated prefecture with 8,861,012. Aichi-Ken and Saitama-Ken follow suit with a population of around 7 million each. Chiba-Ken and Hyogo-Ken take the 6th and 7th place with a population of around 6 million each. They are followed by Hyogo-Ken, Hokkaido, and Fukuoka-Ken with around 5 million each. Shizuoka-Ken has a population close to 4 million while Ibaraki-ken and Hiroshima-Ken have 3 million each. Kyoto-Fu, Niigata-Ken, Miyagi-Ken, Nagano-Ken, Gifu-Ken, Gunma-Ken, Tochigi-Ken (formerly known as Shimotsuke-Ken), Fukushima-Ken, Okayama-Ken, Mie-Ken, and Kumamoto-Ken each have around 2 million inhabitants. The remaining 23 prefectures have around 1 million inhabitants each.

The Mascots and Flags of Japan’s Prefectures

All 47 prefectures of Japan have their own mascots. Prefecture mascots in Japan are also known as “yuru-chara.” The yuru-charas in Japan are not your typical mascots. These Japanese mascots are uniquely designed to embody the culture or famously known qualities of their respective prefectures and government. Plus, these mascots are insanely cute!

These cute mascots are utilized in corporate events, government affairs, and festivals making them super famous. Some of the more famous yuru-charas even have their own merchandise like Disney personal even if they are no cartoon characters, making the Yuru-chara business into a multi-billion dollar industry.

The Japanese people really take their mascots seriously. In fact, there is an annual yuru-chara Grand Prix held in Japan where citizens get to choose their top Yuru-chara character. So how exactly do they come up with yuru-chara Grand Prix winners? The yuru-charas who get the most number of votes win in the Grand Prix. Voting for a mascot is done online through the official website of yuru-chara Grand Prix ( Voting durations start July up until October of every year. The good part about this online voting procedure is that you can vote even if you are in the other parts of the world.

  1. Kumamon
    Kumamon is the yuru-chara of the Kumamoto prefecture, known as the birthplace of Miyamoto Musashi, and he is Japan’s billionaire bear. He is also undoubtedly the most popular and well-loved yuru-chara of Japan. In fact, he has won the Yuru-Chara Grand Prix several times. This brown Yuru-chara stands around five feet tall with circular red cheeks and bright wide smile. When an earthquake hit Japan a few years back, people especially children were more than happy to see Kumamon visit them. Kumamon has grown into something bigger than just being a representation of the Kumamoto prefecture and it seems like the Kumamon fever is not about to die down soon.
  2. Funassyi
    Funassyi is the cute yellow pear yuru-chara of Funabashi city in Chiba prefecture (formerly known as the Kazusa Province). Funassyi has an interesting background story. This yuru-chara is not made by the government of Funabashi city but instead was created by a citizen initially for his personal gains making Funassyi an unofficial yuru-chara. But even without the officiality, Funassyi came out to be a commercial success. Funassyi has done countless of television commercials for various brands such as Fujifilm and Asahi. Additionally, Funassyi has a brother who is known as Funagoro. Funagoro was ‘born’ last 2014 and together, he and Funassyi appear in events together for a stronger public impact.
  3. Shinjo-kun
    Shinjo-kun is the nabeyaki ramen hat wearing yuru-chara of Susaki city in Kochi prefecture. Like the previously mentioned yuru-chara, Shinjo-kun is super cute as well. The design for Susaki city’s yuru-chara is inspired by Japan’s river otter (also known as Kawauso) and is named after the Sinjou River. Shinjo-kun is described to like swimming and dancing. Shinjo-kun has passionate fans who specifically follow him in events and prepare him customized costumes for him to wear.
  4. Hanipon
    Hanipon is from Sanjo city of Saitama prefecture. He just recently won second place in the Yuru-chara Grand Prix 2016. The design of Hanipon was picked among thousands of submissions when an open call was held. The first out of the country trip of Hanipon was in Paris, France.
  5. Takinomichi Yuzuru
    Takinomichi Yuzuru is from Minoh City of Osaka Prefecture. Like Hanipon, the design of Takinomichi Yuzuru came from an open call where the government of Minoh City received thousands of design submissions making it hard to choose just one design. With this, the government passed on the decision making to the citizens by the means of voting. The winning design won a little more than half of the over 4,000 votes cast by the city residents.The name Takinomichi Yuzuru is coined after the tourist spot Minoh no Takimichi known for its well-known yuzu.

This yuru-chara definitely adds to the kawaii or cuteness of Japan. But aside from specific yuru-charas, the prefectures of Japan also have their own flags that incorporate different symbolisms applicable to each prefecture much like a country. The prefecture flags of Japan play with the Japanese writing system, colors, and cool designs. See below list for some of Japan’s cleverly designed prefecture flags:

Shiga Prefecture

The flag of Shiga prefecture is mostly blue with its main symbol in white. The symbol is a katakana of the work Shiga and the middle are said to represent the famous Lake Biwa.

Ibaraki Prefecture

The flag of Ibaraki prefecture is also in blue and white. The color blue symbolized the Pacific ocean and the symbol in the flag depicts a rose.

Hokkaido Prefecture

The flag of Hokkaido Prefecture is multi-colored. The color blue is for the sea, white represents the snow, and red symbolizes the energy of the prefecture as a whole.

Kyoto Prefecture

The flag of Kyoto prefecture features the bright hues of lavender, yellow and white. The symbol is the kanji version of Kyoto.

Shizuoka Prefecture

The Shizuoka Prefecture flag symbolizes the world renowned Mount Fuji. The color blue in the flag represents the sky and the color orange represents the sun.

All the prefectures of Japan have interesting mascots and flags to represent and symbolize each prefecture. Japan surely has a path in making fascinating visuals for practically anything.

When one looks at the regions and history of a nation that one can see how it came to be. The 47 prefectures of Japan represent 47 different cultures and geographies. Each and every region is unique on their own yet still has a shared cultural heritage that makes them part of Japan.