Abolition of the han

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  • Date: 1871/7
  • Japanese: 廃藩置県 (haihan chiken)

The "abolition of the han and establishment of the prefectures," or haihan chiken was announced in 1871/7. Just as a number of other changes in class status and governmental and societal structures transformed the daimyô and their retainers from being semi-autonomous retainers under a decentralized feudal system into being citizens of a unified nation-state and Imperial subjects under a central government, this transformed the lands from being semi-autonomous feudal "states" into being parts of a unified nation-state, governed by officials appointed by and in service of a centralized government.

The Han After the Restoration

In conjunction with the abolition of the samurai class, the rearrangement of social classes and categories otherwise, and certain other steps, the abolition of the han and establishment of the prefectures can be said to represent the dismantling of the feudal order that existed under the Tokugawa shogunate, and the establishment of the "modern" nation-state of Japan. Mark Ravina has argued that these various steps were never conceived as a coordinated plan, and that in fact as late as 1870, leaders in the Meiji government were debating how to salvage the domains, not how to dissolve them.

One year after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the social classes were reorganized. Daimyô and court nobles became kazoku, a new European-style peerage or aristocracy, with titles such as Baron and Marquis. Many of these former daimyô were appointed governors of their han, remaining in place but within a new governmental system - no longer semi-independent lords of their territories, they were now government officials appointed by and working for the center. Through their membership in the kazoku and their appointment as governors, most daimyô saw no loss of prestige, status, or wealth.

Many han, however, had their borders redrawn, with new han still being created as late as 1870 (and at least one, Ryûkyû han, created as late as 1872). As many as 25 new han were established in the Meiji period. Meanwhile, as early as 1868/6, shogunal lands, hatamoto lands, and some of the smaller domains were consolidated into new geopolitical entities known as ken and fu, the terms being taken from Nara or Heian period political territorial designations. Thus, while most of the larger han were allowed to stay in place, the remaining lands were already being reorganized into prefectures.[1]

Ironically, though the Meiji government itself, and to a large extent historians today, look at the maintenance of the han into these first years of the Meiji period as a continuation, in some respects, of what existed under the Tokugawa, in fact the word han itself only came into widespread official use at this time. Prior to the Meiji Restoration, the domains were commonly referred to using a variety of other terms, including kuni, ryô, shiryô, and ryôbun. The term han, deriving from classical Chinese references to military investitures under the Chinese emperor, had been used before by Arai Hakuseki to emphasize the subordination of the domains under the shogunate, and was now put into official use to emphasize their subordination under the Imperial government. While daimyô and domain officials used a variety of terms during the Edo period to emphasize their own power, legitimacy, or autonomy, han was always one which implied subordination.[2]

A number of possible avenues of reform were discussed, in hopes of addressing the crippling debt the domains had accumulated. In just the previous several years, between 1868 to 1871, domains on average spent 115% of their revenues each year; in other words, they were 15% over-budget. Roughly 35% of all domains, and 25% of domains over 100,000 koku, were in debt equal to at least one full year's revenues. On 1870/9/10, the Shûgiin instituted a series of restrictions on spending, limiting each domain's spending on stipends to 82% of its budget, with 9% spent on arms and defenses. Han governors still retained considerable authority, however, over how to assign stipends.


The announcement by the government in the seventh month of 1871 that the han would be replaced by prefectures met with little resistance. In fact, a number of former daimyô, including Hachisuka Mochiaki of Tokushima han, had petitioned the government to do just this. The abolition of the domains relieved lords (or, now, governors) of a considerable burden, as the whole country could now be responsible for managing the whole country, rather than each domain having to manage its own revenues, productivity, safety, and the like. One particularly noted element of this burden was the obligation of each domain, beginning in the Bakumatsu period if not earlier, to look after its own coastal defenses and preparations otherwise for defense against Western attack. With most domains under heavy financial strain to begin with, the prospect of having to fund the development and maintenance of modern military defenses, on top of all the domain's other expenses, was so daunting that at least one domain, Tsushima han, actually petitioned the shogunate in 1859, and again several times in the 1860s, to give over their domain (and the responsibility for coastal defense) to the shogunate.[3]


  • Mark Ravina, Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, Stanford University Press (1999), 204-206.
  1. Ravina, 33.
  2. Ravina, 28.
  3. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 207-216.
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