There are many ways of labeling the smaller administrative areas of a country: states. For the US, provinces for Canada, counties for Ireland for English speaking countries, and departments (or départements) for France, states (or Länder) for Germany as direct translations from the native languages.

But for Japan, the areas are called 'prefectures'. This has always struck me as bizarre. It is obviously of Latinate etymology. And the Japanese word has no cognate whatsoever for even a chance at a calque.

Also 'prefecture' (and prefect) are fairly low frequency English words. Not archaic, not rare, vaguely understandable, but also pretty much mostly associated only with Japan.

So my question is: why prefecture over state/county/shire/department or some other more natural English word? Was it a word recognized for Japan before the isolationist Tokugawa period? Or was it a recent neologism (or really ascribed use new for Japan) afterwards? Was it a natural adoption or did one particular author just happen to start using it? Or was it really a loan translation somehow? Or what?


From Wikipedia--

The West's use of "prefecture" to label these Japanese regions stems from 16th-century Portuguese explorers' and traders' use of "prefeitura" to describe the fiefdoms they encountered there. Its original sense in Portuguese, however, was closer to "municipality" than "province". (Today, in turn, Japan uses its word ken (県), meaning "prefecture", to identify Portuguese districts while in Brazil the word "Prefeitura" is used to refer to a City Hall.) Those fiefs were headed by a local warlord or family. Though the fiefs have long since been dismantled, merged, and reorganized multiple times, and been granted legislative governance and oversight, the rough translation stuck.

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    Can you give any more commentary than just a copy paste from the Wikipedia article? Is there any evidence to support English borrowing it from Portuguese? – Mitch Dec 19 '15 at 23:39

Préfecture is the French word used to describe small administrative areas (i.e. "départements"). The French administrative model inspired Japan when reorganizing its administration.

From French Wikipedia préfectures du Japon:

Cette organisation a été établie officiellement par le gouvernement de Meiji en 1871 dans le cadre d'une réforme dite « abolition du système han » sur le modèle français. Il a remplacé dans les faits les anciennes provinces, bien que celles-ci n'aient jamais été officiellement abolies.

Translation: this new administrative organisation was officially established by the Meiji government in 1871 as part of a reform called Abolition of the Han system based on the French model. It replaced the former regions, even if they were not officially abolished.

In France, the word "Préfecture" has the following meanings:

  • the position of prefect,
  • the city where the prefecture is located, i.e. the capital city of the administrative entity("département"),
  • the administrative services supporting the prefect activities,
  • the building where he lives and where are located his services.

From on-line etymology, the English word "prefecture" is:

an administrative district of a prefect, mid-15c., from Middle French préfecture and directly from Latin praefectura, or assembled locally from prefect.

  EDIT #1 to respond to @HotLicks comment:

After 2 centuries of isolationism during the Edo period, the Meiji government conducted different reforms, most of them being done after studies of what was done abroad. For example, one of the Meiji oligarchy, Itō Hirobumi (1841–1909), a Chōshū native long involved in government affairs, was charged with drafting Japan's constitution. He led a Constitutional Study Mission abroad in 1882, spending most of his time in Germany. He rejected the United States Constitution as "too liberal" and the British system as too unwieldy and having a parliament with too much control over the monarchy; the French and Spanish models were rejected as tending toward despotism. source

  EDIT #2 about French influence on the new administrative organization:

France had been using the word préfecture since Revolution and Napoleon’s time for its own major civil administrative units. Napoleon was seen by the Japanese ambassadorial legations as a revolutionary emperor who modernized and expanded France.

Note that using the term "préfecture" to refer to Japanese administrative is an "anglicism" because, in French, préfecture is not used to refer to the area governed by the prefect. Purists prefer "département" to translate in French the japanese term "todōfuken".

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    Odd, since I don't recall that the French ever had much influence in Japan. – Hot Licks Dec 19 '15 at 19:42
  • @HotLicks - Due to Japan isolationism in Edo period, the influence of all other countries on Japan was weak: The Japanese people were forbidden to travel abroad. Only China, the Dutch East India Company, and for a short period, the English, enjoyed the right to visit Japan during this period, for commercial purposes only, and they were restricted to the Dejima port in Nagasaki. Other Europeans who landed on Japanese shores were put to death without trial. – Graffito Dec 19 '15 at 20:01
  • Are you sure "le modèle français" was not the model of doing away with all the feudal boundaries and replacing them with completely new divisions? I quote from Wikipedia: "The departments were created in 1791 as a rational replacement of Ancien Régime provinces in view of strengthening national unity; the title "department" is used to mean a part of a larger whole." – Peter Shor Dec 19 '15 at 20:12
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    @Graffito - So there's no real evidence of the French influence vs, say, the Portuguese influence suggested by Littman. – Hot Licks Dec 19 '15 at 20:17
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    Wikipedia says that the use of prefecture "stems from" the Portuguese term but gives no provenance. The Portuguese established the port at Nagasaki, but did they have wide enough dealings with the interior of Japan to write about the political divisions of the country? When did English writers adopt prefecture? – deadrat Dec 19 '15 at 20:28

Most Japanese people (unless well versed in English) don't know the word "prefecture" not to mention its original meaning in French. When they encounter this word, they just try memorizing it believing it is a common word in English. (This was my own attitude decades ago.) There are other English words not readily understood by Japanese speakers (or English learners among them) but commonly used in English to refer to things Japanese. For example, I felt it very strange when I first learned the Japanese parliament was called the Diet (It sounded like a kind of diet). Other examples are the bullet train and the Chrysanthemum throne. On the other hand, Japanese speakers know words such as Fujiyama and harakiri, but these are "foreigner speak" and they don't use them.

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    Yes, and most English readers don't know the word 'prefecture' because it only ever is used in reference to Japan, but is itself obviously not from Japanese. Also, in English, 'Diet' for parliament is also hard to distinguish from 'food diet'. I remember distinctly in history as a child of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire everybody laughing at 'the Diet of Wurms' (the parliament of the town of Worms in Germany) because it sounds like you're eating a bunch of gross bugs. – Mitch Feb 6 '19 at 16:24

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