If you look at a map of regions in Japan, you will most likely see the country divided into 8 large areas, with the smaller islands designated as separate areas, and the largest island of Honshu marked as 5 separate parts.
However, although this division of the country is the most popular, the 8 regions of Japan most commonly seen on maps are not the official system of classifying administrative districts in the country.
Historically, Japan was divided into parts of the country controlled by Shogunate and feudal domains. This changed in the mid-19th century, when a new system was devised to classify administrative regions: the prefectures.
Read on to learn more about the difference between Japanese regions and prefectures.
What Are the Regions in Japan?
Although not official administrative units, Japan is traditionally divided into 8 separate regions. This regional division is commonly used on maps, textbooks, and weather forecasts, and many business use their home region as part of their name.
Every region has its own dialect of the Japanese language, and its own traditions and unique culture. The traditional division of Japan into 8 regions is as follows:
- Hokkaido – Covers the entire northern island of Hokkaido, the second largest of Japan’s islands. The largest city on Hokkaido is Sapporo, and the island is popular with outdoor enthusiasts because of its large areas of unspoiled nature and skiing opportunities in the winter.
- Tohoku – The northernmost region on Honshu, Tohoku is also known for its lush countryside and abundance of mountains, lakes, and hot springs. The largest city is Sendai.
- Kanto – Located in central-east Honshu, this region contains the largest city and capital, Tokyo, and is Japan’s most densely populated.
- Chubu – This large region in central Honshu stretches from the east coast of Japan to the west, and is often subdivided into several smaller regions. The largest city is Nagoya and Mount Fuji can also be found in this region.
- Kinki – Also known as Kansai, this region in west-central Honshu was the political and cultural center of Japan for centuries. The largest city is Osaka, and the region also includes the cities of Kyoto, Kobe, and Nara.
- Chugoku – This region is in western Honshu is subdivided into the Sanyo Region, a heavily industrialized area, and the more rural Sanin Region. The biggest city is Hiroshima.
- Shikoku – Covers all of the island of Shikoku, Japan’s fourth-largest island. Matsuyama is the largest city, while Takamatsu is the capital. The region also includes the small island of Naoshima, known for its numerous art installations.
- Kyushu – The southernmost region of Japan, it covers all of the island of Kyushu, and also includes the archipelago of the Okinawa Islands in the far south. The largest city in Kyushu is Fukuoka.
Each of these regions are officially divided into smaller prefectures for administrative purposes.
Are Japanese Prefectures Like States?
Prefectures are the official subdivisions of Japan. Each prefecture is its own administrative jurisdiction and led by a directly-elected governor. A separate assembly decides separate budgets and ordinances for each prefecture, such as organizing the local police force and the supervision of local schools and hospitals.
The first prefectures were created in 1868 by the Meiji Fuhanken sanchisei administration, to replace the urban and rural administrations previously controlled by the Tokugawa shogunate, the last feudal military government in Japan. By 1871, all of Japan was subdivided into prefectures.
The use of the word ‘prefecture’ to label Japanese regions dates back to the 16th century when Portuguese explorers and traders used the word ‘prefeitura’ to refer to the subdivisions of land they encountered. In Portuguese, ‘prefeitura’ means ‘municipality’. Today, the Japanese use the word ken, meaning prefecture, to describe districts in Portugal.
What Are the 47 Prefectures of Japan?
Modern Japan has divided into a total of 47 prefectures; 43 proper prefectures, the 2 urban prefectures of Osaka and Kyoto, one ‘circuit’ or ‘territory’ (Hokkaido), and one ‘metropolis’ prefecture, Toyko.
When the prefectures were first created by the Meiji government in 1868, the nine largest cities in Japan were designated as ‘fu’ prefectures, while all other townships were designated as ‘ken’. Later, the majority of cities were also classified as ‘ken’, with Toyko, Osaka, and Kyoto the only cities remaining classified as ‘fu’.
Originally, there were separate laws that applied to ‘fu’ and ‘ken’ prefectures, but this changed after World War II and now there is no difference between the two. In 1943, the Tokyo area was classified as a new type of prefecture, ‘to’, to reflect its status as the largest and fastest-growing urban area in the country. Finally, Hokkaido is referred to as a ‘dō’ or circuit prefecture.
The complete list of prefectures, divided into regions, is as follows:
Foreign citizens who are planning to explore the different regions and prefectures in the country should first check if they require a visa for Japan. A number of different nationalities will soon be able to obtain an electronic visa to travel to Japan through a simple online application, eliminating the need to apply from an embassy or consulate.