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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Author: Dieter Wanczura