Leave a comment


Miho Takeuchi said on December 31st, 2009 at 4:56 pm :

My name is Miho Takeuchi. I am an Sashiko designer in MA area. I am writing an article about Machi Hikeshi in Japan because their jacket was constructed with Sashiko stitching. Can I have your permission to use the picture of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s woodblock print?


Sashiko and ritual crafting « Achariya Writes said on September 25th, 2012 at 12:42 pm :

[…] Photo from Firefighters of Edo […]

Dec 30, 2007 | 19th-Century Firefighters of Edo

Firefighting is based upon years of tried and tested experience, building upon prior mistakes in order to safeguard against tomorrow’s disasters. That’s why it’s so interesting to read about the firemen, the hikeshi as they were known, of Edo, what is now Tokyo, during the Edo period (1603-1867).

A flagbearer matoimochi holding tight to his pole as the fire rages around him
A flagbearer (matoimochi) holding onto his pole as the fire rages around. Notice another matoimochi in the background. From Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s woodblock print, Enchû no tsuki (Moon and Smoke).

Edo was known as a tinder-box city because its buildings were largely made of wood, straw, paper and bamboo. The largest conflagration to sweep the city, before the 1923 earthquake in which 100,000 people perished, was the Great Fire of Meireki in 1657, which levelled much of the city. Perhaps because of these reasons the firemen of the day were revered in a certain sense, since they helped safeguard the city from catastrophic destruction. By 1850 there were some 24,000 hikeshi in Edo.

They wore a multilayered cotton jacket that was reversible- the outside bore each fire brigade’s insignia, while the inside was more decorated, unique to each. It’s interesting to note parallels in orther garments used by men and women in situations of risk to life. Before going to a fire a jacket was doused in water to increase resistance. They also wore a tenugui, a sort of towel, to protect their head.

As was the case with the rest of society in feudal Japan, firemen were also grouped by social rank. Those who fought for the samurai and the lords were known as daimyobikeshi (daimyo – lord) or jyobikeshi, while those who fought the fires in the towns were called machibikeshi (machi – town). Despite their popularity among artists and locals whose homes were protected, they were looked down upon by the aristocratic upper class, perhaps due to the fact that many firemen were local carpenters and were coarse men prone to streetfights, who pledged their loyalty to one another with body tatoos.

This fireman is carrying a matoi Fireman with matoi

Some of the essential tools used was a matoi or flag/standard, which helped signal the presence of a fire to other surrounding brigades, who would rush forth with water and aid. It was a race of sorts to put up the matoi, as whichever brigade saved a property would be rewarded. Some of the more draconian methods to save a burning building was to tear down neighboring properties, thus preventing its spread. They also used hooks called tobiguchi and rudimentary water pumps (ryudosui), and bamboo ladders (hashigo).

Note the tenugui around this firefighter's head Members of the Edo Firemanship Commemoration Association balance on ladders, January 2005

Their dexterity on those ladders, as well as other fascinating aspects of their history, have been kept and revisited thanks to annual festivals held around Japan, with ladder-climbing acrobatics (hashigonori) and singing traditional firefighting songs (kiyari)

Edo era
The matoi in the background has the word “sho” (merchant) written on it, so they were most likely machibikeshi. Note the tobiguchi and the water pump to the right

Sources: artelino, The Fitzwilliam Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nihon Hikeshi Hozonkai

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 30th, 2007 at 8:14 pm, EST under the category of Articles. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.