Japanese Firefighters of the past – Hikeshi – show their stuff
Dezomeshiki – it’s any five year old boy’s dream come in the form of blaring fire engines, fires, firefighters, and piercing fire sirens. Dezomeshiki is an annual event where the Tokyo Fire Department calls together all of its units spread through-out its wide-flung metropolis to put on a review of all of their equipment, vehicles, and techniques.
Modern-day firefighters of the Tokyo area
Children having a ball climbing over red fire engine trucks
Firefighters have long been role models for children – one of the core professions along with policemen, astronauts, doctors, and cowboys that boys want to become when they grow up. Very few boys in Western countries have ever had a Christmas where at least once there wasn’t a bright shiny red fire truck engine under their Christmas Tree.
A young boy clutching his prized fire engine
In Japan, hero-worship of firefighters goes back several centuries. There have been professional fire fighters in Japan since the 17th Century. They were known as hikeshi. The hikeshi were easily identified by their specially-made coats which sported a variety of bold artistic designs.
Hikeshi – fire fighters from Tokyo’s past
There were three kinds of hikeshi during the Edo Period (1603-1867). Those in charge of protecting the Shogun’s castle and samurai residences were known as Jobikeshi and they were part of the samurai class. The Daimyo-Bikeshi had the highest honor as they were chosen amongst the leading samurai by their lords. They protected important public buildings including rice warehouses. However, the true heroes of the masses were the Machi-Bikeshi. The Machi-Bikeshi defended the houses and buildings of the lower classes.
Wooden water handpump and firefighter hood
The Machi-Bikeshi were a rough-and-tumble lot equally admired and feared. They bore tattoos much like modern-day yakuza. They were firefighters and brawlers. Their reputation and clothes made the Machi-Bikeshi popular heroes. Hikeshi were the pin-up darlings of the 18th and 19th Century long before heart-throb firemen were adorning beefcake calendars in the West. They were the subjects of many ukiyoe (wood block print) artists. One of the most famous ukiyoe artists, Hiroshige Ando, came from a family of firefighters and was a fire fighter himself.
Matoi standards were used for identification and communication
In the early 18th Century, Machi-Bikeshi were granted the right to use Matoi, the fire standard used only by the samurai firefighters beforehand. The Matoi are three-dimensional standards used for brigade identification and communication. Each fire brigade had its own specially-designed Matoi and to carry one was seen as a special honor. During a fire, a Matoi bearer would climb onto a roof often that of a burning house to signal their comrades. Matoi bearers of different fire brigades would often race each other to reach the blaze first. Brawls between different fire brigades were not uncommon.
Hikeshi with essential equipment: ladder, hooks, and Matoi standard
The quintessential piece of equipment of the hikeshi was their decorative coats known as sashiko. Far from just being fashion statements, they were sophisticated pieces of firefighting technology of the time period. Sashiko were thick multi-layered coats whose making required the efforts of a spinner, weaver, artist, dyer and stitcher. Before action the sashiko were wetted down allowing firefighters and Matoi bearers to get closer to the flames, Along with the coats, fire fighters had gloves, hats, and hoods made of the same multi-layered material.
Although Edo/Tokyo suffered from many fires over the years, there is no doubt that the hikeshi were effective in preventing the city from being entirely consumed by flames on numerous of occasions.
Fire Towers like this one were used to alert the hikeshi fire brigades
Fire towers were place at certain intervals throughout the city to warn the local areas of impending fires. The towers contained a bell to be struck with a hammer a certain number of times depending on the blaze. A single ring meant a fire in the distance. Two rings signified a closer blaze so the local fire brigade would come together and make the necessary precautions. Continuous rings meant the fire was in the vicinity. The ranks of the fire brigade would be swelled with local volunteers. Then would begin the arduous and desperate task of trying to keep the blaze from spreading.
Ladders were used to help hikeshi to find the fires
Unlike modern firefighters who seek to extinguish fires, the hikeshi’s main task was to pull down buildings near the fire so that the flames would not spread. To accomplish this task, they carried long-handled hooks called tobiguchi. To extinguish flames, hikeshi would use buckets of course but also a type of handpump made of wood called a ryodosui which would shoot out a stream of water by use of a lever.
Ladders called hashigo were carried to give hikeshi mobile lookout points. Since many buildings in old Edo were only two stories high, hikeshi looking to find their way to a fire could set their ladder up against any building and have a quick look about. If there were no buildings, one hikeshi would climb the ladder while their comrades held it tightly with hand and hook. This led to the tradition of nimble hikeshi performing acrobatics atop free-standing ladders.
A Japanese firefighter from ages past perches on an old ladder
Dezomeshiki takes place every year on January 6th in Odaiba. The Tokyo Fire Department puts on other demonstrations throughout the year and hikeshi societies do acrobatic performances throughout the year in many parts of Japan.
There is much that is different but much that is similar between Firefighters in America and our "BROTHERS FROM THE RISING SUN"