The first level of Japan's political division is called "prefecture" in English. However, in Japanese, there are four words for it: , , , and , and depending the particular prefecture, a certain one is used. Most use . Why is it complicated like this? Why couldn't all be called ? Some subquestions include (but are not limited to):

  • Tokyo prefecture was changed from 東京府 to 東京都 when its political system was changed. Why couldn't the political system be changed without changing the name? If there were needs to exclusively mention Tokyo prefecture in some law, why couldn't the term 東京府 be used instead of 東京都?

  • seems to have been used for prefectures that typically have been the political center of Japan (related to the Emperor). But does this naming have any political significance within the political system effective now? Is there any political law that mentions something particular that applies to ? And if were indeed prefectures with special political status, then why weren't 京都府 and 大阪府 downgraded to 京都県 and 大阪県 when the exclusive prestigious political status was given to then 東京府, renaming it to 東京都?

  • Does have any political significance? Why couldn't 北海道 be 北海県? It is true that 北海道 has peculiar issues, and there used to be things like 北海道開発庁, but 沖縄県 also has peculiar political issues, and there is no problem with it being called instead of some other thing.

  • Isn't 京都府 a strange word? If it is a , then it should be 京府; if it is a , then it should be nothing more than 京都. Similarly, isn't 京都市 a strange word? why is it not 京市?

Is there any other country whose word for the first political division is as complicated as this?

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    It involves history and politics, but still, I think it can stand as a question about the Japanese language.
    – user458
    Commented Jun 30, 2012 at 15:24
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    I have experienced [野々市町]{ののいちまち} becoming [野々市市]{ののいちし}
    – fefe
    Commented Jul 1, 2012 at 1:08
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    @fefe I am not sure but the in 野々市 may be standing for "market" instead of "city". If so, then it is not as strange.
    – user458
    Commented Jul 1, 2012 at 5:49
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    @sawa: sorry if I was unclear: I did not mean to imply that the suffix necessarily had legal implications (although according to fefe below, it might). In this case, I would say rather political than legal... As you point out yourself, it comes down to politics and communication strategy: I doubt you will find a strong logic behind it.
    – Dave
    Commented Jul 3, 2012 at 2:08
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    To turn the question around, one might instead ask why all of these different placename suffixes, with distinct meanings, histories, and legal ramifications, are all indiscriminately translated into English as "prefecture". That seems kind of sloppy on the English side, actually. Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 17:00

2 Answers 2


There are historical reasons for the names. Currently, they stand for different political structure. For four kind of prefectures have different kind of organization and management systems. For examples, you can set "特別区" in a "都", but not in "道府県". The corresponding of name and organization and management structure is regulated by law. So when the management structure changes, the name changes as well.

A further review of this wiki article showed that "都" is different from others. The naming difference of "府県" are mainly historical, and currently have no difference in law. There are a few special regulations of "道" relating to police, river management, road management, etc.

The characters "都道府県" can also be used in a name of place. In "京都府" and "京都市", the name is 京都, not 京. It may have historical reasons how it became like this.

  • Would anyone translate 府藩県三治制 and into English?
    – Gradius
    Commented Jul 1, 2012 at 3:16
  • How about Fuhanken triple-zoning system? Fuhanken regulatory triad? Man, that's a mouthful no matter how you try to compress it. Commented Feb 27, 2013 at 3:04

This question is about the history of Japan. Before Meiji Restoration (明治維新), 県 had never had the meaning of prefecture or province.

According the Wikipedia article 府藩県三治制, when the Meiji government defeated Tokugawa shogunate 徳川幕府, they began to reorganize local territories and domains ruled by the shogunate, independent lords 大名 and shogunal vassals 旗本 in the following manner.

  • The cities directly ruled by the shogunate with 奉行所 were reorganized into 府.
  • The other regions ruled by the shogunate and 旗本, and ones ruled by 大名 but abolished by the Meiji government were reorganized into 県.
  • The other regions ruled by 大名 were remained and renamed to 藩.

After that, the other 府 than 東京府, 大阪府 and 京都府 were renamed to 県, and 藩 were abolished and reorganized into 県 by the order of 廃藩置県. Then, the small 府 and 県 gradually consolidated with neighbouring ones and formed into the current regions (府県制).

Kyoto had 京都所司代 and 京都町奉行 during Edo period, so 京都町奉行 became 京都府.

北海道 was a special region directly controlled by the central government before World War II, and once there were three 県 under it (北海道庁).

東京都 was formed by consolidation of 東京府 and 東京市 under World War II (東京都制).

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