Japanese Geography: Japan’s Forty-Seven Prefectures

By Donald Ash | Articles

(updating…)
When I teach English classes, I often ask my students what they did over the weekend. Usually I get the standard, “Nothing special.” response and that’s the end of it. Yesterday, I had a very small class (only two students) and I tried asking the very same question; it’s a great way to get some of the Japanese kids used to English small talk. It turned out that, coincidentally, both students have grandparents that live in Miyagi, and they both visited their grandparents over the weekend. I just smiled and let them know how cool it was, mainly through silly gestures, that they had visited the same place. Truth be told, though, I haven’t the foggiest idea of where Miyagi, Japan is.

For me, this happens far too often. Someone will mention a place by asking a question “Do you know where Aomori is?” “Do you know where Sendai is?” On occasion I have a general idea about where the place may be, but 95% of the time, I have no clue whatsoever. As a result of my ignorance, I was inspired to crack open a book and start figuring some things out. I want/need to learn more about the regions around me. Something tells me I’ll be in Japan for a while, so it’s better for me to know than not to.

Japan’s Prefectures

First of all, what are prefectures anyway? Prefectures are geographic subdivisions of Japan. Can you imagine if Japan, or any country for that matter, wasn’t divided? It would be pretty chaotic I think. In my opinion, these areas, prefectures, create organization in Japan. Government’s general purpose is to create order, and the Japanese government established the prefectures (when? I’m not exactly sure). A prefecture is to Japan what a state is to the United States. Not to be confused with regions, Japan consists of 47 different prefectures:

1. Hokkaido (ほっかいどう : 北海道)

2. Aomori-ken (あおもりけん : 青森県)

3. Akita-ken (あきたけん : 秋田県)

4. Iwate-ken (いわてけん : 岩手県)

5. Yamagata-ken (やまがたけん : 山形県)

6. Miyagi-ken (みやぎけん : 宮城県)

7. Niigata-ken (にいがたけん : 新潟県)

8. Fukushima-ken (ふくしまけん : 福島県)

9. Gunma-ken (ぐんまけん : 群馬県)

10. Tochigi-ken (とちぎけん : 栃木県)

11. Ibaraki-ken ( いばらきけん : 茨城県)

12. Saitama-ken (さいたまけん : 埼玉県)

13. Tokyo-to (ときょうと : 東京都)

14. Chiba-ken (ちばけん : 千葉県)

15. Kanagawa-ken (かながわけん : 神奈川県)

16. Yamanashi-ken (やまなしけん : 山梨県)

17. Nagano-ken (ながのけん : 長野県)

18. Shizuoka-ken (しずおかけん : 静岡県)

19. Toyama-ken (とやまけん : 富山県)

20. Ishikawa-ken (いしかわけん : 石川県)

21. Fukui-ken (ふくいけん : 福井県)

22. Gifu-ken (ぎふけん : 岐阜県)

23. Aichi-ken (あいちけん : 愛知県)

24. Shiga-ken (しがけん : 滋賀県)

25. Mie-ken (みえけん : 三重県)

26. Kyoto-fu (きようとふ : 京都府)

27. Osaka-fu (おおさかふ : 大阪府)

28. Nara-ken (ならけん : 奈良県)

29. Wakayama-ken (わかやまけん : 和歌山県)

30. Hyogo-ken (ひょうごけん : 兵庫県)

31. Tottori-ken (とっとりけん : 鳥取県)

32. Shimane-ken (しまねけん : 島根県)

33. Okayama-ken (おかやまけん : 岡山県)

34. Hiroshima-ken (ひろしまけん : 広島県)

35. Yamaguchi-ken (やまぐちけん : 山口県)

36. Kagawa-ken (かがわけん : 香川県)

37. Tokushima-ken とくしまけん : 徳島県)

38. Ehime-ken (えひめけん : 愛媛県)

39. Kochi-ken (こうちけん : 高知県)

40. Fukuoka-ken (ふくおかけん : 福岡県)

41. Saga-ken (さがけん : 佐賀県)

42. Nagasaki-ken (ながさきけん : 長崎県)

43. Oita-ken (おおいたけん : 大分県)

44. Kumamoto-ken (くまもとけん : 熊本県)

45. Miyzaki-ken (みやざきけん : 宮崎県)

46. Kagoshima-ken (かごしまけん : 鹿児島県)

47. Okinawa-ken (おきなわけん : 沖縄県)

The kanji symbol “ken,” 県, literally translates into the word prefecture. Saying “Ibaraki-ken” is the same as saying “Ibaraki prefecture.” The symbol fu, 府, means borough (a self-governing, incorporated town) or urban prefecture. The symbol “to,” 都, which can also be read as “miyako” means metropolis or capital. I assume the reason why “to” is only designated to the Tokyo prefecture is…yep you guessed it…because it’s where Tokyo, the capital of Japan, is located. I’m also guessing at this, but Kyoto was the capital city prior to Tokyo, and Osaka was considered to be Japan’s commercial center; this may be why it they use “fu” instead of the “ken” that the other prefectures use. The exact reasons why the prefectures have the names they do is a mystery to me, but in essence the meaning is the same, the endings reference the prefecture.

Usually when people refer to the prefectures, they just use the first part of the name. For example, I live in the Ibaraki-ken prefecture, but most Japanese people just refer to it as Ibaraki. The same goes for Tokyo-to (people just say Tokyo), or Kyoto-fu (just say Kyoto). In the US, the same rule applies, right? If someone asks where I’m from in the United States, I don’t have to say Georgia State (you could, but it’s just not common), I just say Georgia.

I’ve listed both the hiragana and kanji for the prefecture names, mainly because that’s how I’m learning them. Also, if you actually go to Japan, it is quite useful to know prefecture names (they come up in Japanese small talk more often than you might think). Being able to see and recognize the prefectures as they are written in Japanese is even better!

I made this video to show the different prefectures of Japan. I felt that making a video would be a creative method to learn more about Japanese Geography and possibly help someone else in the process. If you struggle with learning the Japanese prefectures, welcome to the club…I do, too. But hopefully, this video will shed some light on a very dim subject (for many foreigners).:

In later posts, we’ll cover of the Japan’s Regions and major cities in Japan as well.

To your knowledge,

Donald Ash

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About the Author

Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.