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"Kokka" redirects here. For the Meiji period journal, see Kokka (journal).
  • Japanese: 国 (kuni, koku)

Kuni, or koku when used in compounds, often translated as "state," "country," or "province," has been used in a variety of ways historically to refer to a number of different kinds of territories. Though today most often used to refer to the state or nation of Japan as a whole, with Nihonkoku meaning "country of Japan," wagakuni meaning "our country," and kono kuni, sono kuni meaning "this country, that country" in the sense of sovereign modern nation-states, historically, kuni or koku was commonly used to refer to the imperial provinces, or to Edo period daimyô domains, or to Japan as a whole. Historians such as Luke Roberts and Mark Ravina, among others, have discussed the implications of this for conceptions of political domainal or "national" identity, politics, and economics in the Edo period.[1]

Early Conceptions/Uses

Reference to Japan as a whole, in one form or another, using the term kuni or koku goes at least as far back as the 6th century. At that time, Nihonkoku 日本国 and Wakoku 和国・倭国 were employed in communications with Tang Dynasty China and the three Korean kingdoms of Silla, Paekche, and Koguryo to refer to the territory / the state under the Emperor.[2] The term shinkoku ("Land of the Gods") similarly is traced back to the Kojiki, compiled in 712.[2] The Imperial provinces were already in place at that time, and were also referred to as kuni (e.g. Bungo no kuni, Musashi no kuni).

Pre-Modern and Early Modern

In the Edo period, the provinces continued to exist, and to be recognized or used as geographical and administrative entities in certain types of maps, surveys, and population registers. Some historians suggest that the shogunate continued to recognize and employ the provincial divisions as part of claiming its legitimacy as ruling in the name of, and in the service of, the Emperor.[2]

However, kuni was also used to refer to a daimyô's domain, at the same time that terms like Nihonkoku, Nihon no kuni, Wagakuni, and Shinkoku remained in use, referring to the Imperial realm as a whole, under the shogunate, or to the "Land of the Gods." Though some domains, such as Tosa han, were largely contiguous with a province, and thus their use of the term kuni could be said to be simply referring to the territory of the province, other domains also used the term, indicating that it did indeed refer to the political geography of their lord's territory. Sometimes, the term could also be used to refer to the lord himself as okuni or okuni-sama, conflating the person of the lord with his domain.[3]

In accordance with the notion of uchi and omote as articulated by Luke Roberts,[4] communications and documents meant for internal domain matters used kuni to refer to the domain as the most relevant "state" or "country," while documents meant for external consumption, such as communications with shogunate officials, used kuni to refer to Japan as a whole, while referring to the domain as the daimyô's personal territory (私領, shiryô) or by a variety of other terms that played down a sense of it being an autonomous "state" and instead emphasized its identity as private territory, or as a fief granted to the lord by the shogunate within the Imperial & feudal realm. Recognizing the state-like character of other domains within the realm, the term takoku (他国, "another state," "another country") was often used to refer to other domains or other provinces, while ikoku (異国, "foreign state," "differing country") was used to refer to lands under other authorities, such as the Netherlands, Korea, and the Kingdom of Ryûkyû.[2]

Domains also employed the term "kokka" to refer to their domain; whereas kuni often refers more so to a political geographic territory, i.e. the actual geographic space of the domain, kokka refers perhaps more abstractly to the "state." Uesugi Harunori, lord of Yonezawa han, is famously quoted as writing that "the lord exists for the sake of the state and the people; the state and the people do not exist for the sake of the lord," writing too of the lord as caretaker of the state inherited from his ancestors, and which he will pass on to his heirs.[5] In this sense, Harunori speaks of the state as something separate from, and larger than, the lord, the lord's household, or the domain's government & administration or body of retainers. Harunori draws too upon the writings of Mencius and the Spring and Autumn Annals, implying a connection, or an equivalence, between the obligations of a samurai lord to his domain, and the obligations rulers have to their ancient Chinese kingdoms according to the Chinese classics. Furthermore, Mark Ravina suggests, Harunori's use of the term kokka refers too to a lord's obligations to the shogunate,[6] and/or, perhaps, to the realm ("Japan") as a whole.

Meiji Period & Modern Japan

Statue of Emperor Meiji at Naminoue Shrine in Okinawa, identified as kokka, or, "The State."

This Edo period sense of the lord's territory as a "state" unto itself played a key role in constituting the ideological foundations of a sort of proto-nationalism which was then adopted or developed in the Meiji period to apply to the entirety of Japan, appropriating that domainal form of proto-nationalism, rather than creating a nationalism derived from the pre-modern / early modern concept of "the realm" (tenka). Popular and official discourse of the Meiji period took the ways in which people identified, and identified with, their domain or province, and extended it beyond those borders, to inform a new, "modern," conception of Japanese identity and the nation-state, combining it with the unifying cultural/linguistic, geopolitical, and religious conceptions of Nihonkoku, Wakoku, or shinkoku, that is, the "country" of "Japan," into a single kuni, a single nation-state in the modern nationalist sense.[2]

The government's official discursive efforts went further, working to construct a conception of the Japanese state as the only state, the only kuni, by officially renaming all the domains "han," a term which emphasizes their subordinate identity as feudal fiefs under a greater authority and not as kuni unto themselves.[7] Related terms such as kokka (国家, the state, the country, the domain) used within domains took on particularly modern political meanings and remain in very common usage today; kokumin or kuni no tami (国民), for example, which had previously meant "a person of the domain" or "the people of the domain" (including both samurai and peasants/commoners, irrespective of class)[8] now is used to mean a citizen, citizens, or the citizenry, i.e. the people of Japan.


  1. Mark Ravina, Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, Stanford University Press, 1999.
    Luke Roberts, Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain: The Merchant Origins of Economic Nationalism in 18th-Century Tosa, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
    Luke Roberts, Performing the Great Peace: Political Space and Open Secrets in Tokugawa Japan, Univ of Hawaii Press, 2012.
    Ronald Toby, “Rescuing the Nation from History: The State of the State in Early Modern Japan,” Monumenta Nipponica 56, no. 2 (July 1, 2001): 197–237.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Roberts, Mercantilism, 5-6.
  3. Ravina, Land and Lordship, 29.
  4. Roberts, Performing the Great Peace.
  5. Ravina, Land and Lordship, 1.
  6. Ravina, Land and Lordship, 13.
  7. Roberts, Mercantilism, 7.
  8. Ravina, Land and Lordship, 30-31.