I have been in Japan twice; once when I changed planes at the Tokyo Narita Airport on the way to a conference in Beijing and once when I spent a night at the Hilton Tokyo Narita Airport on the way back home from China. That is to say, I’ve never really been “in” Japan. Fifteen hours, I think, is a good estimate of the time I spent there. But that was enough to spark an increase in my interest in Japanese culture.
Food being one of the chief motivators in my life, it was not unexpected that I would have invested some of my brief time there in trying a Japanese meal. Due to timing, dinner and breakfast were the only meals I ate at the Hilton. Strangely, I recall only that I chose a “typical” Japanese meal for dinner, though I recall nothing more about it. The next morning, I opted for a Japanese breakfast (which I’ve since attempted to replicate in my own kitchen) consisting of rice, a slice of broiled salmon, miso soup, and cucumber. I don’t recall precisely what was used to add color to the meal, but I have a vague recollection of splashes of bright green and red and yellow on the plates. The other interest in which I became modestly invested was the terminology used to describe political subdivisions. In particular, I was struck by the use of the term “prefecture” to describe what I equate with states or counties.
It saddens me to think speakers of the English language chose to use the word “county” to describe geographical administrative or political subdivisions. Examine the etymology of “county” and there’s an unmistakable linkage with the privilege and power of nobility over the common folk. Today’s county judge is a vestige of the lineage of nobility, similar to a viscount of days of old. The roots of privilege run deep through rotting soil. Most U.S. states use the term “county” to describe the inferior geographic subdivisions covering multiple municipalities and rural territories. Louisiana is an exception, opting to call those entities “parishes.” The Christian religious linkage in the use of that term is obvious; it, too, has roots in a power structure, though the power structure in “parish” relates to the church, rather than nobility. The roots of both terms are far more complex than I suggest here; I’m abbreviating hundreds, if not thousands, of years of history for the sake of sparing my fingers from arthritic paralysis.
“Prefect,” though also rooted in terminology referring to hierarchical structures, seems to me to be more representative of commoners. It has links to civilian or military administrative rankings of authority. Interestingly, in England the term is used to refer to senior pupils recruited to help maintain order in the school. I like “prefect.” And I like “prefecture.” If I could wield unchecked authority for a single day, I would decree that the use of “county” and “county judge” would be replaced by “prefecture” and “prefect,” respectively. (I recognize the irony in that decree; just move on.)
I recognize, of course, that large swaths of the U.S. population (less than 50%, but extremely loud and absolutely certain of their rectitude) would be up in arms about such a decree, claiming the language would lead us on the road to Asian authoritarianism, mask mandates, and tea houses replacing Starbucks. They would insist that the decree was a precursor to orders replacing the traditional American dishes of meatballs, tacos, and pizza with sushi, tempura, and yakitori. Eventually, they would get over it. I hope.
Were I in the business of serving as county judge, I would welcome a change in language; being called “prefect” would elevate my status, changing my image from local lackey to important manager. Referring to the territory under my control as prefect as a “prefecture” would spur the population to take greater care of the land. People would voluntarily clean up litter, tidy up cluttered yards, paint tired old buildings, trim trees, plant seedlings, embrace gardening with a passion, and otherwise take enormous pride in the people’s collective responsibilities. Littering and tagging with graffiti would stop. Crime would decline precipitously, requiring police chiefs to redeploy officers in community service as opposed to law enforcement roles. Members of gangs would reexamine their lives and would decide to redirect their energies toward worthwhile causes such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. Top levels of the U.S. government would respond to the changes at the prefecture level with a sharp reduction in belligerence domestically and internationally. In short, the world would become a more peaceful, more pleasant, and more compassionate place. We all would be happier, healthier and more comfortable in our own skins. Decency would reign supreme.
All this, with a seemingly pointless linguistic adjustment. Words matter. Punctuation matters. As I noted yesterday, the switch in a single letter in a word can mean the difference between paying your bills and being dissected (autopsy versus autopay). You’ve probably seen the admonition, reminding us that punctuation matters:
“Let’s eat Gramma,” versus “Let’s eat, Gramma.”