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The abolition of the han system (廃藩置県 haihan-chiken) in the Empire of Japan and its replacement by a system of prefectures in 1871 was the culmination of the Meiji Restoration begun in 1868, starting year of Meiji period (currently, there are 47 prefectures from Hokkaido to Okinawa in Japan). Under the reform, all daimyōs (feudal lords) were required to return their authority to the Emperor Meiji and his house. The process was accomplished in several stages, resulting in a new centralized government of Meiji Japan and the replacement of the old feudal system with a new oligarchy.
After the defeat of forces loyal to the Tokugawa shogunate during the Boshin War in 1868, the new Meiji government confiscated all lands formerly under direct control of the Shogunate (tenryō) and lands controlled by daimyōs who remained loyal to the Tokugawa cause. These lands accounted for approximately a quarter of the land area of Japan and were reorganized into prefectures with governors appointed directly by the central government.
The second phase in the abolition of the han came in 1869. The movement was spearheaded by Kido Takayoshi of the Chōshū Domain, with the backing of court nobles Iwakura Tomomi and Sanjō Sanetomi. Kido persuaded the lords of Chōshū and of Satsuma, the two leading domains in the overthrow of the Tokugawa, to voluntarily surrender their domains to the Emperor. Between July 25, 1869, and August 2, 1869, fearing that their loyalty would be questioned, the daimyōs of 260 other domains followed suit. Only 14 domains failed to initially comply voluntarily with the return of the domains (版籍奉還 hanseki hōkan), and were then ordered to do so by the Court, on threat of military action.
In return for surrendering their hereditary authority to the central government, the daimyōs were re-appointed as non-hereditary governors of their former domains (which were renamed as prefectures), and were allowed to keep ten percent of the tax revenues, based on actual rice production (which was greater than the nominal rice production upon which their feudal obligations under the Shogunate were formerly based).
As governors, the former daimyōs could name subordinates, but only if the subordinates met qualification levels established by the central government. Furthermore, hereditary stipends to their samurai retainers were paid out of the prefectural office by the central government, and not directly by the governor, a move calculated to further weaken the traditional feudal ties.
Although the former daimyōs had become government employees, they still retained a measure of military and fiscal independence, and enjoyed the customary veneration of their former subjects. This was considered an increasing threat to central authority by Ōkubo Toshimichi and other members of the new Meiji oligarchy, especially with the large number of ex-samurai revolts occurring around the country. In August 1871, Okubo, assisted by Saigō Takamori, Kido Takayoshi, Iwakura Tomomi and Yamagata Aritomo forced through an Imperial Edict which reorganized the 261 surviving ex-feudal domains into three urban prefectures (fu) and 302 prefectures (ken). The number was then reduced through consolidation the following year to three urban prefectures and 72 prefectures, and to the present three urban prefectures and 44 prefectures by 1888.
The central government accomplished this reorganization by promising the former daimyōs a generous stipend, absorbing the domain's debts, and promising to convert the domain currency (hansatsu) to the new national currency at face value. The central treasury proved unable to support such generosity, so in 1874, the ex-daimyo stipend was transformed into government bonds with a face value equivalent to five years' worth of stipends, and paying five percent interest per year.
Makino Nobuaki, a student member of the Iwakura Mission, was to remark in his memoirs: "Together with the abolition of the han system, dispatching the Iwakura Mission to America and Europe must be cited as the most important events that built the foundation of our state after the Restoration."