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Edo Firemen

Item # 26512 - Snake Tattoo - Fireman of Edo - Sold for $100 - 4/8/2007
"Sakari Edo no Hanagata" (Flower of Edo). Kabuki actor, Nakamura Shikan is in the role of a tattooed fireman holding his fire company's symbol, "matori". As the old saying, "the fire and quarrels are the flower of Edo", suggested; the flamboyant firemen had been regarded as the representative of the brave and quick tempered Edo'ists.

The artelino archive offers a database of more than 50,000 sold Japanese prints with detailed descriptions, large images and results. artelino clients with an active purchase history and authorized consignors of artelino have full access to our archive. Read the archive guide and test a trial version.
By Kunichika Toyohara 1835-1900

Firemen in Edo, the old Japanese capital today known as Tokyo, were regarded with a mixture of admiration and fear. They were the rough guys and some thought they were more dangerous than the fires they were supposed to extinguish. For woodblock printmakers the firefighters of Edo were a popular subject - from Hiroshige to Yoshitoshi.

The Flowers of Edo

Traditional Japanese houses were made of wood, bamboo, straw and paper. And in crowded cities like Edo, the houses were built neck to neck with little or no space in between. That made them very prone to fires. Over the centuries Edo was ravaged by a series of great and devastating fires. The citizens called the fires with a certain irony edo no hana - flowers of Edo

A large fire had destroyed Edo and its castle in 1657. Other major fires erupted in 1683, 1806, 1834 and in 1872. The records of the Edo period report about a hundred fires. Most of them broke out during the dry winter season when people heated their homes with charcoal.

The worst fires ever broke out after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 in Tokyo and Yokohama. The fires destroyed both cities nearly completely and killed approximately 100,000 people.

Edo Firefighters - the Equipment

Item # 21515 - Moon and Smoke - Tsuki Hyakushi #22 - Sold for $650 - 7/16/2006
"Tsuki Hyakushi" (One Hundred Aspects of the Moon). No.22. A fireman holds a "matori" (fire brigade's standard) in his hand. He is watching his comrades fighting against the raging fire.

The artelino archive offers a database of more than 50,000 sold Japanese prints with detailed descriptions, large images and results. artelino clients with an active purchase history and authorized consignors of artelino have full access to our archive. Read the archive guide and test a trial version.
By Yoshitoshi Taiso 1839-1892

Edo firefighters were equipped with heavy, multi-layer jackets for their protection. The jackets were wetted before a fire-fighting mission. Often splendid decorations and characters were applied to identify the brigade of its owner. By and by, the decorations went beyond the practical use and became more artistic. Like netsuke or tsuba, old firefighter jackets have turned into collectibles.

Other typical protective firemen clothes were hats, trousers and gloves - all made of multi-layer, thick cotton.

Another indispensable equipment was the standard, called matoi. Each brigade had a different shape of matoi for identification. It also served as a means of communication like flags on a ship.

Sonae Areba Ureinashi

Item # 58439 - 100 Famous Views of Edo - Hatsune Riding Grounds - Sold for $220 - 9/22/2013
"Meisho Edo Hyakkei" ("One Hundred Famous Views of Edo"). "Bakuro-cho, Hatsune no Baba" ("Hatsune Horse Riding Ground") which was actually an idle open space in Hiroshige's time. Dyers from Konya-cho several blocks away are using the ground for drying their cloth. A tall fire-watch tower is on the background.

The artelino archive offers a database of more than 50,000 sold Japanese prints with detailed descriptions, large images and results. artelino clients with an active purchase history and authorized consignors of artelino have full access to our archive. Read the archive guide and test a trial version.
By Hiroshige Ando 1797-1858

Sonae areba, ureinashi is the Japanese proverb for An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of remedy. During the Edo period several precautions to prevent fires from breaking out and from spreading were introduced and became mandatory laws. Fire brigades were established for each district and watch towers were built. Shop keepers had to keep huge buckets filled with water.

The city was separated into blocks of houses surrounded by high wooden walls and gates that were closed at night and guarded by a gate-keeper. New roads were constructed as wide boulevards to prevent fires from spreading from one side of the street to the other.

Hikeshi - Born to be Wild

Item # 47807 - New Selections of Eastern Brocade Pictures - Sumo Wrestlers vs. Fire Fighters - Sold for $380 - 5/29/2011
From the series "Shinsen Azuma Nishiki-e" (New Selections of Eastern Brocade Pictures). "Shinmei Sumo Toso no Zu" ("Fighting of Firemen and Sumo Wrestlers"). Fireman Kotengu Heisuke with tattoo is fighting against sumo wrestler Yotsuguruma Daihachi at Shinmei Shrine.

The artelino archive offers a database of more than 50,000 sold Japanese prints with detailed descriptions, large images and results. artelino clients with an active purchase history and authorized consignors of artelino have full access to our archive. Read the archive guide and test a trial version.
By Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (Taiso) 1839-1892

A document from 1738 mentions a total number of more than 11,000 fire fighters - in relation to a total opulation of about one million citizens. In 1850 24,000 hikeshi - as they were called in Japanese - were employed to protect the city of Edo. The main task of the firemen was to isolate a fire by tearing down the neighboring houses.

Among the population of Edo the firemen had a very special reputation, depending to which class a person belonged. On one side they were admired for their bravery. On the other side they were considered as wild red necks, rowdies and drunks.

Firemen had a strong group mentality, expressed in manifold ways. One was horimono, Japanese tattoos. It was a way to demonstrate masculinity and solidarity with one's comrades. Body tattoos were widely common among the men of the fire brigades.

The hikeshi came from the lower classes and were looked upon by the members of the samurai class and the merchant class. This created peer pressure and the cultivation of rough manners, coarse language and status symbols like the body tattoos. In 1805 a famous clash occurred between sumo wrestlers and fire-fighters at Shinmei shrine. The fighting went on for a whole day and was later dramatized in a kabuki play and depicted in many woodblock prints.

Fist fights in the streets among rivaling fire brigades were not uncommon. But the common Japanese people revered the hikeshi. The average Japanese always cherished a liking for what they considered to be honorable bandits and outcasts. The popularity of the novel of the 108 heroes of suikoden is another example of this attitude.

By the way, the great master Hiroshige I was the son of a fire warden in the service of the shogunate. In the beginning of his printmaking career he remained active as a fire-fighter for several years. Later he could afford to retire and dedicate himself entirely to ukiyo-e.

The Story of Oshichi

Item # 19776 - Burning for Love - Kabuki - Sold for $120 - 5/21/2006
Yaoya Oshichi (left: played by Iwai Hanshiro), the greengrocer's daughter, who burned Edo to meet a lover.

The artelino archive offers a database of more than 50,000 sold Japanese prints with detailed descriptions, large images and results. artelino clients with an active purchase history and authorized consignors of artelino have full access to our archive. Read the archive guide and test a trial version.
By Kunichika Toyohara 1835-1900

Oshichi was a 17 year old girl who lived in Edo towards the end of the seventeenth century. She is the best known arsonist in Japan.

Oshichi, the daughter of a green grocer, fell in love with a monk from a temple where she had fled during a fire in Edo. To see her lover again, she decided to start another fire. The fire she set, burned out of control and destroyed much of Edo in 1683. Oshichi was sentenced to death for the crime of arson and was executed.

Because of her young age and her beauty, the population of Edo felt sympathy with her. Her story was later immortalized in a kabuki play, books and in many woodblock prints - among others by Yoshitoshi.

Traditional Acrobatics on Fire-Ladders

Item # 14686 - Firemen Parade and Acrobats - Sold for $300 - 6/12/2005
Scene of firemen parade. "matori" of each groups line up and the performance of acrobats on the long ladders. Edo firemen were regarded as the most flamboyant "flower" of Edo, more dangerous than the fire they were supposed to extinguish.

The artelino archive offers a database of more than 50,000 sold Japanese prints with detailed descriptions, large images and results. artelino clients with an active purchase history and authorized consignors of artelino have full access to our archive. Read the archive guide and test a trial version.
By not identified

The kind of acrobatics as seen on old ukiyo-e prints from the 19th century is still in our days shown by Japanese firemen. See this short video from Tokyo. Credit and thanks to Jibtv for sharing this with us.

Literature source

John Stevenson, "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon", Hotei Publishing, Leiden, Netherlands, 2001, cloth, 272pp., 165 color ills., 235 x 343 mm, ISBN 90-74822-428.

Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura

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