Tokyobling's Blog

Kawagoe Fire Fighters

Posted in Japanese Traditions, People, Places by tokyobling on April 1, 2013

Saturday was the opening day of the annual Kawagoe Spring festival, the start of over a month of weekly events, performances and exhibitions in Kawagoe’s historic “Little Edo” district. One of my favorite Japanese performance traditions is the traditional fire fighter’s ladder acrobatics, the hashigonori (梯子乗り), which was first performed as a show in 1659. Today it might look strange but in those days fire fighters really needed to be able to raise a tall ladder anywhere in the city in a matter of seconds and have the courage to climb it and find the spot where the fire was. The ladders were made of bamboo and in the narrow streets of old Japanese towns they had to be very mobile, so the teams would use their hooks to steady it while their bravest member would climb up to locate the fire. These teams would consist of volunteers and be financed by the local communities so in an effort to give something back to the community and keep their skills honed the tradition of ladder acrobatics were born. Another tool you’ll see used it the matoi (纏), a pole with the fire fighters mark on it that was quickly put up on roof near the fires. By looking at the way the tassels blew in the wind the fire chief could tell where the wind was blowing and direct teams of men armed with hooks to quickly pull down any buildings that risked catching fires. In those days once a house had caught fire there wasn’t any chance of putting it out, all you could do was to make sure the fire didn’t spread, and Japanese town houses were built with this in mind: all houses were made of wood without any nails so all you had to do was to pull out the plugs that held the timbers together and then pull it all down. You can see this in old houses still, even what little furniture they used was designed to be able to survive having the roof fall down, and after the fire, if the piles of houses survived they could be quickly raised again with comparatively minimal damage. By comparison, during the Great Fire Of London in 1666, the King had to personally order certain houses blown up by placing kegs of gunpowder inside, just in order to create fire lanes to stop the spreading of fire.

I think I better stop here before I geek out on the history of firefighting completely! If you haven’t already seen it, Japanese historic fire fighters have already been turned into a great anime, Combustible, by Katsuhiro Otomo. In the trailer you can see some of the real use of hooks and ladders, in a beautifully drawn classic style. Enjoy!














2 Responses

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  1. pk1154 said, on April 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    I want to see the whole anime!

    (The first B&W photo has a wonderful timeless feeling to it.)


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