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Long before the modern system of Japanese Prefectures was established in 1871, Japan was divided into kuni or "countries," usually translated into English as "provinces". Dating back to the mythical times before recorded Japanese History (which begins in AD 645), the provinces were originally administrative units under the early imperial government, each with its own court-appointed provincial governor. In the early years, the provinces were frequently redrawn for political purposes, but over the years the provinces lost their administrative function and became purely geographical units, as first the shoen estates and later the feudal han domains became the functional, if not nominal, administrative divisions in Japan.

Because of the constantly shifting borders in the early days, the ancient provinces are known in Japanese as the rokujûyoshû, or "60-odd provinces." From 823, however, when Noto province was split off from Etchu, the there have been 68 provinces, which have retained their boundaries for more than 1000 years. In 1871, the modern system of prefectures replaced the fuedal han domains, but unlike the han, the 68 imperial provinces were never officially abolished, and like many ongoing fictions of direct imperial rule, may theoretically be said to still exist. Today, they don't generally appear on maps anymore, but continue to be used ubiquitously in brand names, place names, and company names, and, of course, litter the pages of Japanese history and literature.

Traditionally, the 68 ancient provinces were divided into seven regions known as , or "roads", as well as the kinai or "home provinces" in central Japan, where the imperial court was located, as follows:

幾内 Kinai “Home Provinces”

東海道 Tôkaidô “Eastern Sea Road”

東山道 Tôsandô “Eastern Mountain Road”

北陸道 Hokurikudô “Northern Land Road”

山陰道 Sanindô “Shady Mountain Road”

山陽道 Sanyôdô “Sunny Mountain Road”

南海道 Nankaidô "Southern Sea Road”

西海道 Saikaidô "Western Sea Road"

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