Behold 19th-Century Japanese Firemen’s Coats, Richly Decorated with Mythical Heroes & Symbols

Some fire­men today may com­plain about the bore­dom of all the time spent doing noth­ing at the sta­tion between calls, but when the hour comes to do bat­tle with a seri­ous blaze, no one can say they have it easy. Fire­fight­ing has, of course, nev­er been a par­tic­u­lar­ly relaxed gig, espe­cial­ly back in the days before not just water can­non-equipped heli­copters, and not just fire engines, but fire hoses as we know them today. Putting out urban con­fla­gra­tions with­out much water at hand is one thing, but imag­ine hav­ing to do it every day in a dense­ly packed, high­ly flam­ma­ble city like Tokyo — or rather Edo, as it was known between the ear­ly 17th and mid-19th cen­turies.

“Fires were fre­quent dur­ing this peri­od because of crowd­ed liv­ing con­di­tions and wood­en build­ings, and the fire­fight­ers’ objec­tive was to pre­vent a burn­ing house from spread­ing its flames to the neigh­bor­ing res­i­dences,” writes Antique Trader’s Kris Man­ty. With only weak water pumps at their dis­pos­al, Edo fire­men “did not save the home, but rather tore down the burn­ing struc­ture and extin­guished the fire. They did this by using long poles and oth­er fire imple­ments to demol­ish the blaz­ing house and once the fire was doused, the sur­round­ing homes were once again safe.” In peace­time they “emerged as lat­ter-day samu­rai heroes, with the mot­to, ‘duty, sym­pa­thy and endurance’ ” — and bedecked in tru­ly glo­ri­ous hand­made coats.

“Each fire­fight­er in a giv­en brigade was out­fit­ted with a spe­cial reversible coat (hikeshi ban­ten), plain but for the name of the brigade on one side and dec­o­rat­ed with rich­ly sym­bol­ic imagery on the oth­er,” says the Pub­lic Domain Review, where you can behold a gallery of such gar­ments.

“These coats would be worn plain-side out and thor­ough­ly soaked in water before the fire­fight­ers entered the scene of the blaze. No doubt the men wore them this way round to pro­tect the dyed images from dam­age, but they were prob­a­bly also con­cerned with pro­tect­ing them­selves, as they went about their dan­ger­ous work, through direct con­tact with the heroes and crea­tures rep­re­sent­ed on the insides of these beau­ti­ful gar­ments.”

At the top of the post appears an exam­ple of an Edo fire­man’s coat held by the Philadel­phia Muse­um of Art, one embla­zoned with imagery from per­haps the best-known Japan­ese fable of all. “The cen­ter of this coat shows Momo­taro, a leg­endary boy born from a peach, stomp­ing on an ogre,” says the muse­um’s web site. “The smoke bil­low­ing behind him reminds us of the use of this coat, as does the fire­man’s hook pic­tured on the left sleeve. After their duty, fire­men reversed their coats to dis­play the bold and inspir­ing designs.” As with many promi­nent fig­ures of the age, Edo fire­fight­ers were also immor­tal­ized, coats and all, in ukiyo-e wood­block prints.

The noble image is not least thanks to the fact, writes Artelino’s Dieter Wanczu­ra, that “the great mas­ter Hiroshige I was the son of a fire war­den in the ser­vice of the shogu­nate,” and indeed a fire­fight­er him­self, keep­ing the job years into his print­mak­ing career. The prints fea­tured there include one depict­ing an 1805 clash “between sumo wrestlers and fire-fight­ers at Shin­mei shrine,” not an entire­ly unex­pect­ed occur­rence giv­en the row­dy pub­lic image of the kind of men who joined fire brigades. But “the aver­age Japan­ese always cher­ished a lik­ing for what they con­sid­ered to be hon­or­able ban­dits and out­casts” — and who today, any­where in the world, could argue with their style?

via the Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hand-Col­ored Pho­tographs from 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan: 110 Images Cap­ture the Wan­ing Days of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Soci­ety

Hand-Col­ored 1860s Pho­tographs Reveal the Last Days of Samu­rai Japan

1850s Japan Comes to Life in 3D, Col­or Pho­tos: See the Stereo­scop­ic Pho­tog­ra­phy of T. Ena­mi

Female Samu­rai War­riors Immor­tal­ized in 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Pho­tos

Down­load Hun­dreds of 19th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Wood­block Prints by Mas­ters of the Tra­di­tion

Hun­dreds of Won­der­ful Japan­ese Fire­work Designs from the Ear­ly-1900s: Dig­i­tized and Free to Down­load

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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