Contrary to popular belief, Japan is not only Tokyo. There are 46 other prefectures that the country is divided into, which are in turn (for the most part) divided further into cities (市, shi) and districts (郡, gun); districts are further subdivided into towns (町, machi) and villages (村, mura). Prefectures are largely dependent on the national government in Tokyo for financial support and their organization is defined by the Local Autonomy Law, which went into effect in 1947. Prefectures, however, elect their own governors and do get some autonomy in their policy-making. If you're familiar with how the American government is set up, an oft-used analogy is the relationship between the county and the state it's part of.
The current prefectural system was developed out of the Meiji Restoration into Imperial Japan 1868; prior to that Japan was divided into provinces (kuni (国) — "lands" or "countries" in Japanese), which weren't legally the fiefdoms the local daimyo ruled over as feudal lords — they were a separate administrative division stemming from the ancient system created by prince Shotoku in the Heian period, — but for administrative purposes ended up as the same thing: the government usually simply installed the most powerful of the local daimyo as an official governor of the province. Technically, the provinces of Japan were never abolished (what was abolished was the -han (藩) fiefdom system that the local daimyo actually ruled, which ran concurrent to the provinces - the current prefectures came from a couple rounds of consolidating some 300 han) but nowadays are chiefly used for local-branding purposes. There's a good deal of overlap between the boundaries in both systems, though - if you compare a map of Japan's feudal provinces with a map of its modern prefectures, their borders don't deviate all that much from each other (the big exception is the Tohoku region, where two provinces are now six prefectures).
A note about titles - there's not one single title used in Japanese for all 47 of them. The Western standard of calling Japan's subdivisions "prefectures" is from Portuguese contact in the 15th century, who called the fiefdoms ruled by the various daimyo prefeitura. Japan currently has four different designations for its first-level political subdivisions, the titles borrowed from Imperial Chinese administration organization. After the Meiji Restoration each type of prefecture had their own set of administrative powers, though since World War II the differences have largely become inconsequential:
- Tokyo is a -to (都). Tōkyō-to is usually translated as "Tokyo Metropolis", reflecting the fact that it has grown even higher than its erstwhile peers in Osaka and Kyoto in terms of importance.
- Hokkaido is a -dō (道), which translates as "circuit". It is a remainder from the Asuka (no, not that one) Period (538-710 AD), when Japan was divided into Gokishichidō (五畿七道): five provinces centered around the Imperial capital Nara and later Kyoto (Kinai), and seven circuits based on the roads that connected them to those five central provinces. (Hokkaido was not one of those original seven circuits - it's basically a -dō because the Meiji Government didn't know what else to call it as it wasn't developed enough to be a -ken.)
- Osaka and Kyoto Prefectures are titled with -fu (府). In Imperial China, it implied the subdivision in question was an urban center of national importance - given that for most of Japanese history Kyoto was where the Emperor resided and Osaka was the largest trading center in the country (especially for rice), it seems justified. After the Meiji Restoration Tokyo was also a -fu until the national government made it a -to in 1943 in order to retain more control over the largest urban area in the country when World War II was turning against them.
- The other 43 prefectures are officially called -ken (県). Prefectures being styled with this implies that the prefecture is a more rural area.
All 47 prefectural governments are sometimes collectively referred to as to-dō-fu-ken (都道府県).
Prefectures are organized by regionnote and are numbered in order of ISO ordering. Listed populations are taken from the 2020 population census.
1. Hokkaido (北海道, Hokkaidō)
Literally translates as "Northern Sea Circuit". Hokkaido is physically the northernmost of the four main islands. As mentioned above, the -dō indicates the type of prefecture it is, so "Hokkaido Prefecture" is technically redundant unless you want to distinguish between the island and the political entity. The prefecture also includes several small islands around it (including, officially, four that were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II and are a major reason why Japan and Russia do not currently have a formal peace treaty). Due to its late development and relatively large size with many sparsely-populated areas, rather than cities and districts Hokkaido is subdivided into subprefectures which handle the local administrative work.
Historically called Ezo (蝦夷)note , the island was for most of its history inhabited by the Ainu, an ethnic group who predated the Japanese as inhabitants of the archipelago and spoke a language unrelated to any other in the world. The cold, snowy winters discouraged large-scale Japanese settlement beyond the southern tip through most of Feudal Japan's history, and for the most part whatever shogunate was in power was content to let the Matsumae clan have feudal domain over the Ainu and retain a monopoly on trade with them. It wasn't until after Commodore Perry's black ships arrived and the shogunate began modernization efforts did control of Hokkaido tighten, mainly to stop the Russians from taking it for themselves for their own Far East expansion.
Hakodate was the Last Stand of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the Boshin War following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 - a bunch of shogunate loyalists took over the fort there and held out until they were crushed the following May. The Meiji government took up the task of developing Hokkaido and brought in help from American advisers - the effects can be seen today in much of Hokkaido's historical architecture, which look more like something you'd see in the American Midwest, and the Western grid-pattern street layout of Sapporo. The only other Japanese cities to have such a layout are Kyoto and Nara (they got that pattern because of Chinese feng shui); pretty much every other city in Japan has streets that cross and meet each other at irregular angles, mainly to confuse rival daimyo who might try to take over their turf.
Being settled very late by Japanese immigrants, Hokkaido arguably has the least distinctive culture among all regions of Japan, further supported by the fact that those immigrants mainly came from the Kanto region with minorities from other regions that got quickly assimilated, so the people here speak generic Japanese, i.e. the Tokyo dialect. This means that despite symbolizing a perfect Grim Up North (Truth in Television, as the entire island is guaranteed to be blanketed with snow during winter), Japan's actual Grim Up North is Tohoku, just right across the Tsugaru Strait, while Hokkaido is mainly used as a setting of refuge, not strangeland.
Today, it's probably most well-known for its tourism opportunities, whether it's being able to escape the monsoon rains that drench the rest of Japan in the humid months of June and July, or the skiing opportunities in the winter (Sapporo hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics), or the many hot springs and natural landmarks all over the island. The island hosts a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Shiretoko National Park, located in a peninsula protruding to the northeast, which contains the country's largest brown bear population. It's also known for its diverse array of agricultural products - Hokkaido has about a quarter of all the arable land in Japan. Since 1988, activity has been spurred with the presence of Seikan Tunnel, the longest tunnel with an undersea segment in the world, which connects Hokkaido with Honshu.
In the northeastern part of Honshu, north of the Kanto Plain lies the Tohoku Region; Tōhoku literally translates as "east-north". Historically this is a less-developed region, as it was settled by Japanese centuries after the center of its civilization developed to the south. The mountainous geography of the area, the rather harsh winters, and the relative lack of easy transport access (by road or by sea - the rivers generally aren't suitable for boats and there aren't many decent harbors) further slowed settlement. Despite the relatively short growing season, the region is now known as an agricultural center, as a disproportionate amount of the nation's rice is grown here since similar populated areas in the south went for industrialization first. This combination of factors is likely why someone with a Tohoku accent (which sounds like the speaker is having a very bad cold) gets stereotyped as a backwoods hillbilly, and the reason why it's known as the Grim Up North of the archipelago (even after Hokkaido is settled extensively). Just count how many times a media is basing their environment from the Ghibli Hills of Aomori and Akita, which looks like something you see from My Neighbor Totoro.
During the age of the Shogun, this whole region of six current prefectures was made up of just two provinces (Dewa and Mutsu) because of its relative lack of development, and the comparative remoteness from the rest of Japanese civilization meant the local clans (most notably the Date family, who in exchange for keeping the Ainu at bay in Hokkaido were exempt from both rice tribute and the sankin kōtai policynote under the Tokugawa shogunate) always maintained some distance and autonomy from the center of power in Kyoto or Edo.
This is the region that was devastated the most by the March 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown - the epicenter of the earthquake was about 72 kilometersnote off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture. Previously, Tohoku had experienced two separate earthquakes and tsunami in 1896 and 1933, the former even deadlier than the 2011 disaster (in fact, it is Japan's second deadliest disaster). Both occurred off the coast of Iwate Prefecture.
2. Aomori (青森)
The northernmost prefecture of Honshu. Named after its green woods, the 'aoi-mori', used as landmarks for ships coming into port when the area was first settled. Known for its apple orchards, as well as its production of sake and quality seafood. The Shirakami-Sanchi, the country's last remaining patch of ancient beech forest, straddles this prefecture and Akita and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. Nevertheless, it is still fairly obscure both as a tourist destination and setting for popular culture, though Makoto Shinkai fans will recognise it as where much of The Place Promised in Our Early Days takes place in, while Flying Witch fans will know it as the new home of a different Makoto.
3. Iwate (岩手)
The second largest prefecture by land size, particularly renowned for its natural beauty. Several Buddhist temples and a burial site in the south of the prefecture are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Kosode Coast in Kuji city is best known as the filming location for Sodegahama in Amachan, a popular TV drama that explores the region's sea urchin-diving industry. Also known for "The Three Great Noodles of Morioka", three popular and unique noodle dishes eaten throughout the area. As noted above, two of the biggest earthquakes to impact Japan had their epicenters off the coast of Iwate. The 1896 one caused a tsunami measuring up to 38 m in height (which would not be surpassed until the 2011 earthquake) and reaching the shores of Hawaiʻi.
4. Miyagi (宮城)
Most populous and developed of Tohoku prefectures, it was where the (in)famous One-Eyed Dragon Date Masamune has set his shop after Sekigahara, founding his capital of Sendai in 1600. Masamune was a patron of culture and education, and his legacy continues to this day — Tohoku University (Tōhokudai) in Sendai was one of thirteen Imperial Universities founded after the Meiji Restoration, and is a stronghold of engineering and materials sciences: to this day it is a heart of Japanese metallurgical science, while the famous Yagi-Uda antenna (used in radars and TV receivers) was invented there in The '30s, and the first practical blue LED in The '90s. To this days Sendai remains more of a university city than anything, while its suburb of Matsushima, with its bay dotted by the picturesque pine-overgrown islets, was considered one of the three best views of Japan — to the extent that even the legendary Basho was at loss of words for its beauty. Unfortunately, it was the area hardest hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, whose epicenter was off the coast of Miyagi.
5. Akita (秋田)
Famous for its prodigious levels of rice farming, sake production, and sake consumption, as well as being the origin of the Akita dog breed.
6. Yamagata (山形)
Defined by its natural attractions, Yamagata is particularly home to Zao Onsen, an area filled with numerous hot springs, rarely-visited ski slopes, and "snow monsters", enormous trees covered in snow. In practice, it is a smaller Hokkaido, having all the attractions with fewer people and at far less cost. Also host to Yamadera temple, the subject for one of legendary Japanese poet Basho's most famous haiku.
7. Fukushima (福島)
Originally known for fostering unique traditions of food and culture, the fertile lands that produce some of Japan's best fruit and sake, and its famed onsen and pristine wilderness, something southern suburbanites and tourists have long been drawn towards. Currently known for being the home of that unfortunate nuclear plant incident in 2011.
Kantō literally translates as "East of the Barrier" - the "Barrier" in question was the Hakone (箱根) Checkpoint, a town located at the very western edge of present-day Kanagawa Prefecture and marked the point at which Tokugawa Shogunate officials would stop and check travelers from points west in order to enforce restrictions on the movement of women and weapons. The area itself has the Kanto Plain, which makes up about half the region and is the single largest plain in Japan. The plain is fed by many rivers that flow through it - this combined with the fact that arable land is at premium in a country that is 90% mountain made it a very lucrative location for Tokugawa Ieyasu to establish his center of power in 1603.
The Kanto region was the heart of feudal Japan's power during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), partly thanks to the resident Hojo clan who helped the Minamoto clan establish a shogunate over the rest of Japan and later seized control of the shogunate with some slick backroom politics. It was divided into eight provinces: Shimotsuke, Hitachi, Kozuke, Musashi, Kazusa, Shimosa, Awa, and Sagami. In the Sengoku Jidai, an unrelated line of daimyo took the Hojo name and seized power in the region, ruling from Odawara. Kanto became the seat of shogunate power again during the Edo Period (1603-1867), remaining so after the Meiji Restoration with the Emperor physically moving from Kyoto to the now-renamed Tokyo. Tokyo and Yokohama were major industrial centers that attracted large numbers of migrants, even with the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 resulting in over 100,000 dead.
With about 1/3 of Japan's entire population (and Tokyo's metropolitan area still growing in a country whose national population is starting to decline), as well as the modern center of the nation's politics, business, and culture, this will most certainly remain the most prominent region of Japan for the foreseeable future.
8. Ibaraki (茨城)
Historically known as Hitachi Province. Yes, as in the Hitachi company that might have made your TV or air conditioner - the company was founded in the namesake town located in the prefecture in 1910. Despite formally counting as Kanto, it's the place where the Tohoku dialect first starts to be heard: the locals call their prefecture Imbaragi. Tsukuba city, to the northeast of Tokyo, hosted Expo '85, a specialized World's Fair focused on technology.
9. Tochigi (栃木)
The rural city of Nikko to the northwest of Utsunomiya is best known for hosting the mausoleum of and shrine dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Monkey Morality Pose trope originated from a carving of three monkeys adorning the shrine's horse stable. It is part of more than a hundred structures composing three Shinto and one Buddhist temples designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also home to the country's largest wisteria in the city of Ashikaga, and Makoto Shinkai fans will know it for its prominent role in 5 Centimeters per Second.
10. Gunma (群馬)
Sometimes called the "Tokyo's water faucet", Gunma is a relative mountainous backwater, whose main fame comes from the natural beauty of its valleys, crystal clear rivers coming out of them, and supplying the drinking water for the 1/4 of the Japanese population that lives in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area. During the Sengoku Jidai it was known for the production of horses, and little else, but after the Meiji Restoration it was a birthplace of the famous Nakajima Aircraft Company, reborn after the war as the Fuji Heavy Industries conglomerate, best known nowadays for their Subaru brand — after which it finally rebranded itself in 2017. The city of Tomioka was site to Japan's first silk reeling industry, with machines imported from France. The silk mill is still remarkably well-preserved and has UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Among others, Initial D and Nichijou take place here.
11. Saitama (埼玉)
If Tokyo is New York, Saitama is New Jersey minus the petrochemical refineries (they're more to the south and east in Chiba and Kanagawa). Namesake of the protagonist of One-Punch Man. Over 900,000 of the populace commute south into Tokyo for work every day, a larger movement of people than Attila the Hun's horde. The forests in the city of Tokorozawa are the real world inspiration for My Neighbor Totoro and have been retroactively named after the titular creature.
12. Chiba (千葉)
13. Tokyo (東京, Tōkyō)
The most populous prefecture and the capital of the country. See the Useful Notes page for more detail about the 23 special wards you're probably looking for. Note however, that Tokyo is not just the 23 special wards; there are the oft-forgotten Tama Area to the west, which is much larger but is largely rural (yes, Tokyo does have farms) or semi-urban and serve as bedroom communities, and the Izu and Ogasawara Islands that stretch far south into the Pacific Ocean, the latter of which includes Iou-to (misread as Iwo Jima), where the famous photograph of six US Marines raising the American flag took place. Compare the situation between New York City and New York State.
14. Kanagawa (神奈川)
Although long ago absorbed into the Tokyo metropolitan region, Yokohama remains a separately incorporated city (a category which technically excludes Tokyo) and thus is classified as the second-largest city and the largest proper city in Japan. During the Sengoku Jidai, the city of Odawara to the southwest of Yokohama was the seat of the Hojo clan, until it was overtaken by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590. The Port of Yokohama was established in 1859 after Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to allow foreign trade; it eventually overtook Kobe to become the busiest port in Japan and one of the busiest ports in the world. Nissan, one of the world's top automobile manufacturers and a notable proponent of electric vehicles, is headquartered in Yokohama. Notable video game companies headquartered in Yokohama include Koei Tecmo and Arc System Works. Yokohama also plays host to possibly Japan's most famous Chinatown. The Yokohama Landmark Tower is the tallest building in both Kanagawa Prefecture and the Greater Tokyo Area; although less than half the height of Tokyo Skytree at 296 meters, neither the Skytree nor runner-up Tokyo Tower are considered fully-habitable buildings.
The Yokohama suburb of Kamakura was the seat of the original Minamoto Shogunate, and is now a popular resort town famous for its giant Buddha statue, huge Yuigahama beach and the picturesque Enoshima island just off of it. It is also very popular as a setting of various anime and live-action dramas. Further to the south, Yokosuka plays host to the US Navy's Seventh Fleet, which contains its only continuously forward-deployed carrier strike group. Meanwhile to the west, Hiratsuka is where one of the biggest Tanabata festivals in the region is held. Further inland is Hakone, as famous for its views of Mt Fuji as for being remade into Tokyo-3 in Neon Genesis Evangelion. Finally, the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, Japan's deadliest disaster, had its epicenter in Kanagawa (specifically in the town of Kaisei, a bit north of Odawara).
Chūbu literally translates to "The Central Portion". This is a fairly diverse group of prefectures encompassing the general area between the Kanto and Kansai regions. It's often subdivided into three subregions:
Hokuriku (北陸)Literally "north land", these four prefectures lie on the coast of the Sea of Japan. During the shogun period, seven provinces existed in their place: Noto, Etchu, Kaga, Echizen, Wakasa, Echigo, and Sado provinces. During the winter air from Siberia picks up moisture traveling across the Sea of Japan before it is forced upward by the Japanese Alps and causing it to dump its precipitation, making this area among the snowiest places on Earth, which gives the region its nickname of "Yukiguni" — "The Snow Country".
15. Niigata (新潟)
A coastal prefecture probably best known for koi, rice and skiing. Its most famous historical figure is most likely Uesugi Kenshin, whose base of power was here. Niigata also includes Sado Island off its western coast, which formerly formed its own province and used to be the place where people who have committed so great an infamy but not enough to be given a death penalty were banished.
16. Toyama (富山)
Formerly known as Etchu province, its mountain villages were mainly specialized in silk production — the remains of which can still be seen in the UNESCO World Heritage village of Gokayama, — while the coastal areas specialized in fishing. Nowadays it's more known for energy production, being the site of the tallest and most picturesque hydro power station in Japan — the Kurobe dam on the eponymous river, and for P. A. Works, which is headquartered in the city of Nanto. Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route is a picturesque road that goes through the deepest nooks of Japanese Alps, which are said to be the snowiest place on the Earth: a particular attraction is a cut in the snowdrifts over the road, which is made every spring — the walls of compressed snow sometimes reach the height of 15 meters.
17. Ishikawa (石川)
This prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast used to contain some of the wealthiest han (domains) in feudal Japan. It has fallen out of the limelight in modern times, though it was the birthplace of Takeshi Kaga of Iron Chef fame. It is the current terminus of the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo, though that is projected to change when the extension to Fukui opens in 2022.
18. Fukui (福井)
Also a prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast. It has 14 nuclear power plants, the most of any in the country. The city of Sabae produces 90% of Japan's domestically-made spectacles.
Koshin'etsu (甲信越, Kōshin'etsu)This region encompasses the most mountainous parts of the Japanese Alps, and most of its population is concentrated in basins scattered throughout. Historically the area was known for its silk production; nowadays more of its population is involve in light manufacturing. Provinces that once existed in the area include Kai and Shinano. The region's name itself is an acronym of the first kanji of those provinces' names plus Echigo's; Kai (甲斐), Shinano (信濃), and Echigo (越後)
Niigata is sometimes included in this group.
19. Yamanashi (山梨)
Directly to the west of Tokyo, Yamanashi includes the northern slopes of Mount Fuji, including the infamous Aokigahara forest. Historically known as Kai Province, home of the Takeda clan.
20. Nagano (長野)
A mountainous area, with 9 of the 12 highest mountains in Japan within its boundaries. The 1998 Winter Olympics were held here.
21. Gifu (岐阜)
Gifu Prefecture itself is usually not considered a part of any of the three subregions listed on this page. When it does get classified it's often split, with its mountainous northern half (formerly Hida Province) going to the Koshin'etsu region and the southern plain near Nagoya (formerly Mino Province) grouped into the Tokai region. The namesake town's central location near the main routes to and from Kyoto made it a key strategic point during the Sengoku Jidai - as the saying goes, "control Gifu and you control Japan." Sekigahara, the site of the most famous battle in Japanese history, lies on the Tokaido Road near the prefecture's mountainous western boundary.
Shirakawa-go, a remote village containing unique thatched farmhouses the style of gassho-zukuri is located here. The village specialized in sericulture and gunpowder manufacturing. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also the inspiration for Hinamizawa.
Hida, the real-world model for Itomori from Your Name, is also found here and has greatly increased international awareness of the prefecture.
Tokai (東海, Tōkai)The name itself means "east sea", and refers to one of the seven circuits of the Gokishichido - the Tokaido region stretched from the Kansai Plain and ran along the Pacific coast all the way to present-day Ibaraki Prefecture. The Tokaido Road, meanwhile, was the road that the Hakone Checkpoint (see the Kanto region) sat on, being the most important road of the Edo Period and today is still the most heavily traveled route in Japan thanks to all the industry that is served by it.
Former provinces of the region are Izu, Suruga, Totomi, Mikawa, and Owari.
Mie Prefecture (listed here under Kansai) and the southern half of Gifu Prefecture are often considered part of this subregion. The Chukyu (中京, ''Chūkyū) Metropolitan Area (Shizuoka, Aichi, and Mie) centered around Nagoya are especially close economically.
22. Shizuoka (静岡)
Includes the southern slopes of Mount Fuji as well as the hilly Izu Peninsula, popular for its hot springs. Its capital of Shizuoka is (together with Tokyo) one of the few large cities that changed its name during Meiji restoration, when the former Sumpu Domain, long the stronghold of the Tokugawa clan (Tokugawa Ieyasu spent most of his childhood in the Sumpu Castle as a hostage to the Imagawa clan, befriended Oda Nobunaga there, and liked it so much that he made it his base after winning it from the Imagawa), was reformed as a Shizuoka Domain and then Shizuoka prefecture.
Automotive companies Suzuki and Yamaha are based in the neighboring cities of Hamamatsu and Iwata, respectively.
23. Aichi (愛知)
Historically divided into two provinces, Owari in the north and Mikawa in the south. Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi were both from Owari (hence why the former was, pre-ascendancy, known as the Fool of Owari), while Okazaki in Mikawa was Tokugawa Ieyasu's ancestral home. Culturally, the prefecture is an underrated resource for studying and experiencing the historical sites of the Sengoku Period most of which remain in their original state.
Nagoya is Japan's third-biggest metropolis, a major port, and hosts one of Japan's seven Meiji-era imperial universities, the Nagoya University (Meidai). Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama is also a Nagoya native. Toyota, currently the world's tenth largest company and Japan's largest by revenue, is based in its namesake city, located to the east of Nagoya.
Before the Edo period, the Kansai dialect was the prestige dialect of Japan, as it was the speech of the royal family and the shogunate. Even today, the Kyoto variant still retains much of its splendor, being regarded as posh and soft-sounding compared to other variants.
24. Mie (三重)
Location of the Ise Grand Shrine, one of (if not the most) sacred shrines in Shinto. It's also where the Suzuka Circuit is located.
25. Shiga (滋賀)
Centered around Lake Biwa, the largest inland body of water in Japan. Formerly rotten with industrial production, currently rotten with decaying factories. Fittingly, it has a sister-jurisdiction relationship with Michigan (which is of course defined by the largest lakes in the US and decaying industry). Otsu was also a place where the Russian Crown Prince Nicolas (later to be Tsar Nicolas II) was attacked by a deranged policeman, which indirectly caused Russo-Japanese War couple of decades later.note
26. Kyoto (京都, Kyōto)
The Kyoto Basin, also known as the Yamashiro Basin after its previous provincial name, constitutes the historical heart of Japan. The basin is defined by the Katsura, Kamo, Uji and Kizu Rivers, which descend into the plain from their sources in the surrounding mountain (or, in the case of the Uji, the Seta outlet of Lake Biwa) and merge together to form the Yodo River that flows into the sea at Osaka. The town of Uji, where the old road between Kyoto and Nara crosses the river of the same name, was significant during the Heian period as a summer retreat and burial ground for the Fujiwara clan. The last part of The Tale of Genji are set here. Uji was the site of two major battles during the Genpei War. Today, Uji is known for old temples, green tea and Kyoto Animation. Two rural provinces, Tanba and Tango, also became part of Kyoto Prefecture, adding little more than vast expanses of rural territory and access to the Sea of Japan.
Kyoto City has the most number of heritage sites of any city in Japan, thanks to being an imperial capital for so long and being spared from the worst bits of World War II (it was briefly considered a planned site for the atomic bombing project, but the US Secretary of War rejected it on account of his fond memories of honeymooning in the Old City). Some of them are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the modern side of things, Kyoto is also the home base of Nintendo. Kyoto University (Kyōdai), one of the seven imperial universities, is located here.
As noted above, the Kyoto variant of the Kansai Regional Accent is something of an anomaly, being known for its soft and feminine-sounding pronunciation in an area known for their harsh speech pattern.
27. Osaka (大阪, Ōsaka)
Osaka City is the third largest city in Japan and considered the capital of Western Japan and an antithesis to Tokyo. Don't try to bring up Tokyo here, Osakans are proud of their heritage and rightly so; it was for the longest time the center of Japan, being located close enough to the sea giving it easy access to foreign trade, close enough to Kyoto to receive its continuous patronage, and close enough to Ise to receive moral support. Any merchant who wanted to stop over to Japan had to land on Osaka, and it soon became the definition of cosmopolitan in the eyes of many Japanese during the Middle Ages.
The landmark Osaka Castle, located smack-dab in the middle of the metropolis, was the seat of the Toyotomi clan after their defeat in the Battle of Sekigahara and was the scene of the final unification battle of Japan, the Siege of Osaka in 1614, wherein the forces of the Tokugawa shogunate annihilated the Toyotomi once and for all. Osaka's other landmark is the Tsutenkaku tower, currently serving as an advertisement board for Hitachi since 1957. Its first incarnation, like the Tokyo Tower, was modeled after the Eiffel Tower, but it suffered extensive damage during World War II and was demolished. Osaka also plays host to Abeno Harukas, Japan's tallest building that slightly edges out Yokohama Landmark Tower (see above) at 300 meters.
In Osaka's southern suburbs, there are several curious keyhole-shaped hill mounds dotting the otherwise crowded metropolis. These are kofun, burial mounds that date back all the way to the 6th century and gave its name to the Kofun period. Kofun exist all over Japan, but the ones in Osaka are especially large (and very noticeable in maps). They have been certified a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As the center of the country's second-largest metropolitan area, Keihanshin,note many famous Japanese companies are headquartered in Osaka, including Capcom, Kubota, Panasonic (in the Kadoma suburb), PlatinumGames, Sharp (in the Sakai suburb), and SNK (in the Suita suburb). Father of Manga Osamu Tezuka was born in the suburb of Toyonaka, as his father worked in Sumitomo, once headquartered in Osaka. Universal Studios Japan is located nearby Osaka Bay. Asahi Shimbun is also based in the city, the only one of Japan's Big Six national newspapers not headquartered in Tokyo. Finally, the city's northern suburbs host an imperial university, Osaka University (Handai).
The prefecture has hosted two World's Fairs in 1970 (a universal expo held in Suita) and 1990 (a horticultural expo held in Osaka city's Tsurumi ward), and is set to hold another universal expo in 2025 with a venue in an artificial island located in Osaka's Konohana ward. The venue where Expo '70 was held is called the Expo Commemoration Park, containing a museum, a stadium, a dismantled amusement park (closed after a deadly accident in 2007), and a strange, gigantic white sculpture called the Tower of the Sun◊.
The prefecture is served by two airports. The first is Itami Airport, officially Osaka International Airport, though it only serves domestic routes today. Most of the airport is actually located in Hyogo's Itami city (hence the nickname), though it straddles Osaka's administrative area. As Japan's economy flourished over the years, it proved to be cumbersome and overcrowded, especially as its location in the metropolis prevented it from being able to expand. As a result, a new, much larger airport was constructed atop an artificial island built off the coast of Izumisano to the south. Christened Kansai International Airport, it now handles Western Japan's international flights. There is a third airport in Osaka, located in Yao, but it only serves unscheduled flights as well as base to the JSDF.
Call someone from here an idiot at your own risk.
28. Hyogo (兵庫, Hyōgo)
Kobe, a highly important port city, was the first to open to the West after the ending of the Tokugawa shogunate's policy of sakoku. It is a center of heavy industry manufacturing in Japan, with Kawasaki and Kobe Steel being headquartered here. And yes, the famous beef came from here as well. On a less joyful note, Japan's worst earthquake since 1922's Kantō earthquake: the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which struck Osaka Bay, hit Kobe the hardest. Over 6,000 were killed and a major chunk of the city was destroyed. Before then, the bombing raid that the city suffered as part of the Doolittle Raid is a plot point in Grave of the Fireflies.
Himeji Castle, located in the city of the same name, is one of Japan's best-preserved medieval castles and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Takarazuka city in the east has a famous all-female theater production, the Takarazuka Revue, and also contains a museum dedicated to Osamu Tezuka (who, incidentally, was a longtime fan of the Revue).
The prefecture includes the Awaji island, located in the Seto Inland Sea. Japanese mythology considered it to be the first of the archipelago to form. It was formerly a separate province, but was merged with Hyogo after the Meiji Restoration. It is directly connected to Honshu through the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world, as well as to Shikoku through the Onaruto bridge.
29. Nara (奈良)
Founded in 710, Nara is Japan's oldest city. It was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784 (barring a five-year period where the capital shuffled several times in the Kansai region) and the namesake of the Nara period, during which the kana writing systems were created and the earliest extant Japanese literature written. It's known for Todaiji, a massive temple holding the world's largest bronze statue of the Vairocana Buddha and its population of wild Japanese sika deer revered as messengers of the Shinto gods. These cultural heritage gave the city two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, one in Nara itself and the other in nearby Ikaruga.
To the north of the city, the prefecture once hosted the Nara Dreamland, a Disneyland knockoff that was built because of a licensing dispute between Disney and the park's management forced the latter to drop any reference to Disney properties. For 21 years, it was the closest any Japanese could taste a Disney theme park without having to leave the country, so it was reasonably popular. That changed when Disney succeeded in building a proper Japanese Disneyland in 1983, causing attendance to the park to plummet. The final nail to the coffin came in 2001, when Universal Studios Japan was built in nearby Osaka (less than an hour from Nara). The park closed five years later, but its structures survived for another decade before the city's government auctioned the land to a real estate company, which demolished them.
30. Wakayama (和歌山)
The Kii Peninsula is home to a series of Shinto and Buddhist pilgrimage sites and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Though the name Chūgoku literally means mid-country, the region occupies the western part of Honshu as an Artifact Title from when the center of Japanese civilization was between Kyushu and the Kansai Plain, which would put this region in the middle. The region can be split in half down its mountainous middle, with the San'in (山陰, "the shaded side of the mountain", literally "yin of the mountain) region bordering the Sea of Japan and the San'yo (山陽, San'yō, "the sunny side of the mountain", literally "yang of the mountain") region bordering the Inland Sea. (Portions of Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures were historically also part of the San'in and San'yo regions.) Since Chūgoku is also used to refer to China since No More Emperors, tourist agencies often use the term "San’in‐San’yo region" to distinguish between them.
There are 11 provinces that used to exist in this region: Inaba, Hoki, Izumo, Iwami, Nagato, Suo, Aki, Bingo, Mimasaka, Bizen, and Bitchu.
31. Tottori (鳥取)
The least populous prefecture. Formerly known as Inaba province, it's deeply connected to the oldest legends of Japan. Similar to the nearby Shimane prefecture, it features heavily in the myths of Okuninushi, a legendary ruler of the land who yielded it to the first Emperor of Japan, and is a home of his trusty sidekick, White Hare of Inaba (who is venerated in a small shrine in Tottori city). Sakaiminato, a small fishing port in the prefecture, is famous for its Eshima Ohashi bridge over the Lake Nakaumi — "the scariest bridge in the world" due to it being exceptionally steep. The prefecture also features the only genuine sand dune in the country, which is a significant tourist trap as of itself.
32. Shimane (島根)
The eastern part of the prefecture, on what used to be Izumo Province, is the Japanese equivalent of Jerusalem (while Ise is the equivalent of Vatican City), featuring many Shinto pilgrimage sites and other sacred spots. It was the mythological capital of Japan, ruled by Okuninushi, a descendant of the Shinto god of the storms, Susanoo. Through her messengers, Amaterasu, the chief goddess of the Japanese pantheon and Susanoo's sister, ordered him to abdicate in favor of her grandson, Ninigi. It is also the location of Yomotsu Hirasaka, believed to be the main entrance to The Underworld.
The city of Oda has Japan's largest silver mine prior to its closing in 1923. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The province officially includes the Liancourt Rocks, which are disputed with and de facto administered by South Korea.
33. Okayama (岡山)
Most well known for being the place where the story of Momotaro takes place.
34. Hiroshima (広島)
The castle town was founded in 1589 by Mori Terumoto, one of the main opponents of Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the latter's drive to unite the provinces of Japan during the Sengoku Jidai. It grew in prominence after the Meiji Restoration when it became a big industrial and transportation center (as the westernmost large city on Honshu with a good harbor). Nowadays it's known for its version of okonomiyaki (the ingredients are usually layered; the more broadly-known Kansai version mixes the ingredients together while cooking) and its high number of street cars. Automobile manufacturer Mazda is also headquartered in the city.
And, yes, it was the target of the first atomic bomb dropped by the United States on August 6, 1945. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was originally an exhibition hall whose skeletal structure survived the bombing, even though it was right near the epicenter.
The southern city of Kure has been a major source of shipbuilding since the Meiji Era. The Yamato, largest battleship in the world, was built there, and it continues to play host to a JMSDF base.
Itsukushima, an island to the southwest of Hiroshima, is a sacred Shinto site containing a distinctive, free-standing torii which famously floats during high tide, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
35. Yamaguchi (山口)
The prefecture contains Shimonoseki, which other than hosting one end of Kanmon Bridge connecting Honshu with Kyushu, is also the location for the signing of treaty between Imperial Japan and Qing China ending the First Sino-Japanese War.
The smallest of Japan's four main islands. It's Exactly What It Says on the Tin, as the name translates as "Four Provinces". The four prefectures that currently make up the island are pretty much direct descendants of four provinces from Japan's feudal days: Awa, Sanuki, Tosa, and Iyo. Home to the 88 Temple Pilgrimage and a bunch of rice fields.
36. Tokushima (徳島)
Formerly known as Awa Province. The prefecture is the location of one end of the Onaruto Bridge, the first bridge to connect Shikoku with Honshu. Most famous for the annual Awa Odori dance festival in August. Also notable for the wild Naruto whirlpools, named after a nearby city, which inspired quite a lot of paintings and even a topping for ramen. And the famous fictional ninja.
37. Kagawa (香川)
Birthplace of Kobo Daishi, polymath and founder of Esoteric Buddhism. Also known for Sanuki Udon noodles, named after the old title of the province. The city of Sakaide is one end of the Seto-Chuo Expressway, the second bridge to connect Shikoku with Honshu.
38. Ehime (愛媛)
The liveliest of the four prefectures, which still isn't saying much. Formerly known as Iyo Province. Home to Dogo Onsen, one of Japan's oldest hot springs and now a fun tourist trap. The city of Imabari is also one end of the Nishiseto Expressway, the third and most complicated of the bridges connecting Shikoku with Honshu (it passes through at least six islands before reaching Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture).
39. Kochi (高知, Kōchi)
Has a reputation as Japan's hardest drinking prefecture. Known as Tosa Province back in the day. Birthplace of samurai/politician/negotiator/revolutionary/reformer Ryoma Sakamoto, commonly known as "that ronin from Tosa" during his lifetime.
A bit of an Artifact Title - though there are only eight prefectures on here and the surrounding islands, the name translates as "Nine Provinces" as there used to be, well, nine provinces (Chikuzen, Buzen, Bungo, Hizen, Chikugo, Higo, Hyuga, Osumi, and Satsuma) on the island in the country's feudal days. The nine however didn't include the Tsushima Islands, located off the western coast, which were administered as a separate province of the same name (today, it's part of Nagasaki Prefecture).
The Japanese accents of the island (Kagoshima, in particular) are notable for being very divergent from Standard Japanese to the point of mutual unintelligibility. They are not classified in the dualism of Western and Eastern Japanese and instead form their own branch.
40. Fukuoka (福岡)
A major industrial center, including the city of Kitakyushu, which is a huge shipbuilding stronghold, and is (in)famous for the confusion about its capital's name: because Fukuoka, like many modern Japanese cities,note was formed by amalgamation of the older historical towns, its main railway station is still called by the name of one of its constituents, Hakata ward/town, which throws a lot of visitors off their course. Ironically, a new city was to be called Hakata, as it was larger and more developed than its rival Fukuoka, but a group of samurai from the latter stormed the meeting and essentially forced the officials to name the city Fukuoka at gunpoint. On another note, the city also has Kyushu's only imperial university, Kyushu University (Kyūdai), as well as the secret headquarters of the organization to Take Over the World, ACROSS.
The prefecture has some shrines with UNESCO World Heritage status. The one located in Okinoshima, a remote island on the Sea of Japan, is off-limits to women, a la Mount Athos.
41. Saga (佐賀)
Sparsely populated, it's mostly known for rice and porcelain. In Yuri!!! on Ice, Yuri Katsuki's hometown of Hasetsu (which is heavily based on the real Saga city of Karatsu) is located here. It's also the setting of Zombie Land Saga, which repeatedly lampshades how obscure a setting it is.
42. Nagasaki (長崎)
The historical center of nanban (European)note trade with Japan, dating back to the 16th Century first with the Portuguese and then later with the Dutch. During Tokugawa rule the closing off of the country to outside influence effectively sealed off official contact with the West everywhere except for highly-regulated contact at Dejima, an artificial island in Nagasaki's bay (which was originally a small peninsula - the island was made by digging out a canal that cut across it). Thanks to this early and extensive European influence, Nagasaki consistently ranks as the most Christian prefecture of Japan; if a media features Christian characters or otherwise set in a place that's unusually Christian (e.g. Kids on the Slope), chances are it's set somewhere here. Twelve of the thirteen churches designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their history as Christian centers are located in Nagasaki (the other is located in Kumamoto).
The city became the target of the Fat Man atomic bomb dropped by the United States on August 9, 1945, making it the second and last (hopefully) city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb.
The city of Sasebo has played host to a naval base since the Meiji Era and, like Yokosuka in Kanagawa, is homeport to forward-deployed elements of the US Navy. It is also home to the Dutch-inspired Huis Ten Bosch theme park.
43. Kumamoto (熊本)
44. Oita (大分, Ōita)
Where the city of Beppu, famed for its many hot springs, is located.
45. Miyazaki (宮崎)
In Japanese mythology, Amanoiwato shrine in Takachiho is reputedly the place where the goddess Amaterasu hid in a rock cave during an argument with her brother, Susanoo.
46. Kagoshima (鹿児島)
Originally Satsuma Domain, the place claims fame for its traditional ruling family (the Shimazu, descendants of the Minamoto) and by extension, its people, having played a major part in many events in Japanese history. It is in Tanegashima that the Portuguese matchlock arquebus was introduced—revolutionizing Japanese warfare as it did during the Sengoku Period. The Shimazu themselves would be massive power brokers throughout the era—and not even Toyotomi Hideyoshi or Tokugawa Ieyasu made policy without considering their actions. Centuries later, it would be the samurai of Satsuma (with the political weight of the Shimazu) who would be the pillars of the Meiji Restoration—yet ironically also becoming the base of the eponymous Satsuma Rebellion/Seinan War.
A wide variety of foods are grown and raised here. Also a major center of activity for JAXA, Japan's space agency, as the main launching facility at Tanegashima is in this prefecture (fittingly for the place where firearms, still a symbol of "modernization", came in).
This prefecture also includes some islands of the Ryukyu island chain, including Yakushima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its ancient forests.
47. Okinawa (沖縄 Uchinaa)
This prefecture includes all islands of the Ryukyu chain south of the 28.5 parallel north (to the north the islands are administered by Kagoshima). The largest city, Naha, dominates the activities of the archipelago. The islands themselves were under US control until 1972 and about 3/4 of the personnel under United States Forces Japan command are stationed here due to the islands' strategic position in the Western Pacific; their large presence (US military bases take up nearly 20% of the island) are the continued subject of protests from locals for various reasons. Iriomote Island is the second largest island in the prefecture and is mostly national park. The prefecture's Yonaguni Island is the westernmost inhabited island of Japan and is much closer to Taiwan (only 67 miles [107 km]) than it is to Tokyo (over 1200 mi [2000 km]).
The Ryukyu Islands are inhabited by the Ryukyuans, a distinct ethnicity from the Japanese. They used to speak languages which are related to but distinct from Japanese, and are mutually unintelligible to it or even to each other. Compared to the Japanese, the Ryukyuans were more impacted by Chinese culture and used to serve as emissaries between Japan and China back when they were still an independent state. In 1609, the Ryukyu Kingdom was invaded by the Shimazu clan from Kyushu and thereafter became a vassal state to the Tokugawa shogunate. To appease Qing China, the local monarchy continued to operate until 1879, when the Meiji government abolished it. Subsequently, Japan implemented a language assimilation policy similar to that practiced by the French Third Republic; Ryukyuan languages were labeled as nonstandard dialects of Japanese and their speakers were stigmatized.note This caused a language shift that led to the Okinawan dialect of Japanese supplanting the local languages as the islands' primary mode of communication today.
Traditional castles of the Ryukyuans are called gusuku. The most famous of them is the Shuri Castle, the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which is currently being rebuilt after an electrical fire burnt down most of the complex's buildings in October 2019. Some of the gusuku, plus a couple of pilgrimage sites, a mausoleum, and a garden, are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Senkaku Islands, currently disputed with both China and Taiwan, are de facto administered by Japan as part of Okinawa Prefecture.
Oh, Karate comes from here, too.