Japan is divided into 47 prefectures (都道府県, todōfuken, [todoːɸɯ̥ꜜkeɴ]), which rank immediately below the national government and form the country’s first level of jurisdiction and administrative division. They include 43 prefectures proper (県, ken), two urban prefectures (府, fu: Osaka and Kyoto), one “circuit” or “territory” (道, dō: Hokkai-dō) and one metropolis (都, to: Tokyo).
In 1868, the Meiji Fuhanken sanchisei administration created the first prefectures (urban fu and rural ken). They were to replace the urban and rural administrators (bugyō, daikan, etc.) in the parts of the country. They were previously controlled directly by the shogunate and a few territories of rebels/shogunate loyalists who had not submitted to the new government such as Aizu/Wakamatsu. Then in 1871, all remaining feudal domains (han) became prefectures, so that prefectures subdivided the whole country. In several waves of territorial consolidation, we ended up with today’s 47. And in many instances, these are contiguous with the ancient ritsuryō provinces of Japan.
Each prefecture’s chief executive is a directly elected governor (知事, chiji). Every 4 years members get elected. Ordinances and budgets are enacted by a unicameral assembly (議会, gikai).
Under a set of 1888–1890 laws on local government until the 1920s, each prefecture (then only 3 -fu and 42 -ken; Hokkai-dō and Okinawa-ken were subject to different laws until the 20th century. They were subdivided into cities (市, shi) and districts (郡, gun). And each district into towns (町, chō/machi) and villages (村, son/mura). Hokkaidō has 14 subprefectures that act as General Subprefectural Bureaus (総合振興局, sōgō-shinkō-kyoku. Literally meaning “Comprehensive Promotion Bureau”) and Subprefectural Bureaus (振興局, shinkō-kyoku, literally “Promotion Bureau”) of the prefecture. Some other prefectures also have branch offices that carry out prefectural administrative functions outside the capital. Tokyo, the capital of Japan, is a merged city-prefecture; a metropolis, it has features of both cities and prefectures.
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