Why ‘prefecture’ for Japanese administration areas?

There are many ways of labeling the smaller administrative areas of a country: states. For the US, provinces for Canada, counties for Ireland for English speaking countries, and departments (or départements) for France, states (or Länder) for Germany as direct translations from the native languages.

But for Japan, the areas are called ‘prefectures’. This has always struck me as bizarre. It is obviously of Latinate etymology. And the Japanese word has no cognate whatsoever for even a chance at a calque.

Also ‘prefecture’ (and prefect) are fairly low frequency English words. Not archaic, not rare, vaguely understandable, but also pretty much mostly associated only with Japan.

So my question is: why prefecture over state/county/shire/department or some other more natural English word? Was it a word recognized for Japan before the isolationist Tokugawa period? Or was it a recent neologism (or really ascribed use new for Japan) afterwards? Was it a natural adoption or did one particular author just happen to start using it? Or was it really a loan translation somehow? Or what?


From Wikipedia–

The West’s use of “prefecture” to label these Japanese regions stems
from 16th-century Portuguese explorers’ and traders’ use of
“prefeitura” to describe the fiefdoms they encountered there. Its
original sense in Portuguese, however, was closer to “municipality”
than “province”. (Today, in turn, Japan uses its word ken (県), meaning
“prefecture”, to identify Portuguese districts while in Brazil the
word “Prefeitura” is used to refer to a City Hall.) Those fiefs were
headed by a local warlord or family. Though the fiefs have long since
been dismantled, merged, and reorganized multiple times, and been
granted legislative governance and oversight, the rough translation

Source : Link , Question Author : Mitch , Answer Author : Steven Littman

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