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Dezomeshiki: Firefighting Japanese Style
The Tokyo Fire Department puts on a blazing show
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2008-03-13 09:24 (KST)   

Japanese firefighters of the past -- Hikeshi -- show their stuff.
©2008 D.Weber

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 throughout its wide-flung metropolis to put on a review of all of their equipment, vehicles and techniques.

Modern-day firefighters of the Tokyo area.
©2008 D.Weber

Children of all ages clamber in and over all the different kinds of firefighting and rescue vehicles. Their wide eyes are filled with awe and wonder, which just goes to show that the love and adoration children have for firefighters is the same as it is in other parts of the world.

Children having a ball climbing over red fire engine trucks.
©2008 D.Weber

Firefighters have long been role models for children -- one of the core professions along with police officers, 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 under their Christmas tree.

A young boy clutching his prized fire engine.
©2008 D.Weber

In Japan, hero-worship of firefighters goes back several centuries. There have been professional firefighters 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 -- firefighters from Tokyo's past.
©2008 D.Weber

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 among 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.
©2008 D.Weber

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 heartthrob firefighters 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 firefighter himself.

Matoi standards were used for identification and communication.
©2008 D.Weber

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 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 standards.
©2008 D.Weber

Firefighting in old Tokyo -- or Edo as it was called then -- was a tough business. Given that the vast majority of houses and buildings were made almost entirely of wood, fires were frequent and very destructive at times. Displaying a grim sense of humor, residents referred to their flammable homes and buildings as Edo no Hana -- the flowers of Edo.

Fire towers like this one were used to alert the hikeshi fire brigades.
©2008 D.Weber

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 take the necessary precautions. Continuous rings meant the fire was in the vicinity. The ranks of the fire brigade would be swelled with local volunteers, and 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.
©2008 D.Weber

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 hand pump made of wood called a ryodosui, which would shoot out a stream of water by use of a lever.

Firefighters on parade.
©2008 D.Weber

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 freestanding ladders.

©2008 D.Weber

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, firefighters 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.

Firefighter in a special suit for chemical hazards.
©2008 D.Weber

While the main purpose of the Dezomeshiki is to showcase the equipment and abilities of modern firefighting in Tokyo, the old hikeshi practically steal the show. Dezomeshiki begins with a few obligatory speeches from noted officials that can be safely missed then members of various units proudly parade by followed by firefighting and rescue vehicles of land, sea and air.

©2008 D.Weber

After the parade -- the moment many have waited for -- the hikeshi come on. Several hashigo ladders are put up supported by the arms and hooks of the hikeshi members. Several Hikeshi climb to the top of the freestanding ladder and perform a number of acrobatic moves. Sometimes they will perch atop the ladder with only one leg wrapped around the pole. Other times they will "jump" off the side while holding onto the ladder's side. The hikeshi acrobats make it look easy but there have been injuries and even deaths in the past.

A Hikeshi showing off his acrobatic abilities.
©2008 D.Weber

After their performance, the audience might feel compelled to leave but this would be a mistake. Afterwards, Dezomeshiki kicks it into high gear resembling a Hollywood movie set. The Tokyo Fire Department puts on some realistic demonstrations of emergency situations and responses from house fires, earthquakes, chemical hazards and sea rescues.

These demonstrations serve to ensure the people of Tokyo that fire and rescue operation units are well trained and ready at a moment's notice. Tokyo has seen its fair share of fires and disasters over its long history so instilling confidence in the local populace is an important matter. The worst disaster occurred in 1923 when Tokyo was hit by a massive earthquake. The Great Kanto Earthquake struck around the lunch hour. The sudden upheaval of countless stoves and ovens cooking away created an immense fire that claimed the lives of over 100,000 people.

Live action demonstration of firefighters taking care of a building fire.
©2008 D.Weber

At the closing ceremony, several fire engine trucks parked in a row lift their ladders high into the sky. Then all at once they drop multi-colored streamers while flying the Japanese flag. Firefighters shoot jets of water high overhead as helicopters fly by in tight formation. A perfect ending for even the most jaded of children.

Dezomeshiki takes place every year on Jan. 6 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.

A Japanese firefighter from ages past perches on an old ladder.
©2008 D.Weber
©2008 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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