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The term prefecture has been used to denote a self-governing body or area since the time of Constantine I, who divided the Roman Empire into 4 districts (each divided into dioceses). Much like a state or city, these were largely self-governed; however each owed allegiance to Rome. A prefect was the head of a prefecture.

Table of contents
1 Japanese sense of prefecture
2 Chinese sense of prefecture
3 French sense of prefecture
4 Other meanings of prefecture

Japanese sense of prefecture

In the Japanese system, the word prefecture is used for translating references to an administrative district, ken (県), which is about the size of a county.

The local self-governing system of Japan consists of 2 classes: prefectures as the large area local governing units and municipalities the basic local governing units. In the Eastern sense, the administrative segregation of a unified nation is usually trifold: the nation, large area local governing units, and basic local governing units. Japan fits this pattern.

Japan is divided into 47 prefectures and each prefecture is further divided into municipalities. These prefectures and municipalities have no overlapping districts or uncovered areas. In short, all the residents in Japan are sure to belong to one prefecture and one municipality.

These prefectures and municipalites are not merely set up as the nation's administrative section, but also as corporate bodies independent from the country that possesses their own basic governing areas and local residents as their constituents. They hold administrative power within the districts in question. In Okinawa, Nagasaki and Hokkaido, subprefectures are used as special administrative unites because such regions are too large or remote to govern for a prefectural government.

The current prefecture system in Japan was settled in Meiji era after the new government abolished feudal clans or Han. That is called "Abolition of the Han system". See Meiji era in History of Japan for historical background of this event.

Chinese sense of prefecture

Prefecture was the good enough English translation before the establishment of ROC for the Chinese term xian (县 or 縣 pinyin xian4) which marked the level of government below the province. The word county has been employed for denoting the same Chinese term after 1911. This situation was much more complicated before 1911.

The number of prefectures in China proper gradually increased from dynasty to dynasty. As Qin Shi Huang Di reorganized the chinese prefectures after his unification, just below 1000 were found. In Eastern Han Dynasty, numbers of prefecture increased to above 1000. About 1400 were observed when Sui dynasty eradicated jun or commandry (郡 jun4), the level just above xian, many of which were demoted to prefectures. Current number of counties mostly resembled that of the prefectures in the later years of Qing Dynasty. Changes of location and names of prefectures in Chinese history had been a major field of research in Chinese historical geography, especially during 1960s to 1980s.

In Eastern sense, the administrative regions of a unified nation are usually segregated into three levels: the nation, large area local governing units and small local governing units. Though taking different names during the course of Chinese history, this ideology had been followed until Ming Dynasty. In Imperial China, the prefecture was a significant administrative unit because it marked the lowest level of the imperial bureaucratic structure. Government below the prefecture level was often undertaken through informal non-bureaucratic means, varying from dynasties.

In modern-day People's Republic of China, prefecture is the level immediately below a province, which include prefecture, autonomous prefecture, and prefecture-level city. (See Political divisions of China#Level)

French sense of prefecture

In France, a préfecture is the capital city of a département. By extension, it is also the name of one of the governing bodies of the département. The civil servant in charge is the préfet. The préfecture is an administration that belongs to the Interior ministry, and is therefore in charge of the delivery of the identity card, driving licenses, passports, residence and work permits for foreigners, car registration, registration of the associations (creation, status modification, dissolution), and of the management of the police and of the firefighters. The préfet can make arrêtés, which are legal texts written for the application of the law, e.g. to close a building that is not conform to the safety rules, or to modify the circulation rules on the streets (speed limit, authorisation for roadworks). The other governing body is the Conseil Général, which is in charge of the building and maintenance of schools and roads, the financial assistance to dependent people (disabled, old persons), promotion of the economical local development... Préfecture It is also the name of the building where the préfet is based.

There are 100 préfectures in France.

There is an exception with Paris (which is itself a département) and the three surrounding départements (called the petite couronne, small crown): those four départements are governed by a single préfecture which is the préfecture de police (PP). The préfet de police has the power of law enforcement for Paris, which is a power of the mayor for the other french cities and towns. Until 1977, Paris had indeed no mayor and was entirely ruled by the préfet de police (a situation inherited from the Paris Commune, 1871).

The départements are divided into arrondissements, themselves divided into cantons. The capital city of a canton is the sous-préfecture (note that the word "arrondissement" is barely used in this meaning, this subdivision has not a big importance in France). The civil servant in charge is the sous-préfet. The capital city of a canton is a chef-lieu de canton.

Other meanings of prefecture


See also:
Subprefecture -- Politics of Japan -- Politics of China -- Politics of Taiwan -- County