The 47 prefectures of Japan are much more than just administrative units; they play a big role in the identity of their inhabitants. The Japanese are fond of analyzing and comparing the local qualities of different prefectures, and it often feels as if they are talking about entirely independent mini-countries.
But actually, the prefectures are a fairly recent addition to the map of Japan: the current division into 47 units dates from 1888. So what was there before prefectures? Provinces, which were called 国 (くに). See, even the word and the kanji are the same as those used for "country"!
The tricky part is that modern prefectures are not always direct successors to preexisting provinces. While some provinces had basically the same territory as the prefecture that replaced them, others were merged into larger units or split between different prefectures.
Why is this ancient stuff important? Because the old provinces are still very much alive in the Japanese mind. Their names frequently pop up in daily life as well as in literature. When you first come across an old province name, it can look just like any other place name – so some prior knowledge can help you a lot in your reading.
Luckily, province names appear in dictionaries, but you still have to know what to look for. This is especially the case with provinces that are less familiar to foreigners. For example, the latest Reajer book, The Coughing Pine (number 49 in the series – read the free samples on Amazon and iBooks), is based on a folktale about a notorious fox who lived in 但馬の国. This is Tajima Province (但馬), whose territory is now included in the northern part of present-day Hyōgo Prefecture.
Some old province names, though, are just as famous as their modern counterparts, or even more so. Yamato (大和), the cradle of Japanese civilization, is a name you'll see everywhere in the successor prefecture of Nara. Musashi (武蔵), formerly encompassing the region that is now the central part of the Tokyo Metropolis, is very much alive too – as millions of commuters are reminded every day when they travel with main railway operators such as 西武 and 東武 or on JR's 総武 line, all of which use Musashi's initial character 武 in their names.
Wikipedia has a handy map of Japan showing the old provinces, and you can compare this to the modern prefecture map. Not that you should memorize the map or anything, but it does help to take a look and understand the general arrangement. Whenever you see a province name, use the map again and make a mental note of that province's location. Over time, you'll be able to navigate Japan's hidden historical landscape with confidence.
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