text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
The earthquakes or the tsunami were not the great disaster that brought (and still brings) fear to the hearts of the people of Tokyo; they devised construction methods to help their structures withstand the former and the natural breakwater of the Chiba peninsula was adequate protection against the latter. The real terror of a city where the anti-seismic albeit wooden, paper and straw houses were built so close to one another was fire. And although today’s materials guarantee a superior defense, there is still alive in the Tokyoites’ conscience a fear for the monster that can claim thousands of lives in an hour and in the worst conceivable way; together with this fear there is also a particular brand of respect for those who, when everyone else is running from a fire, run towards it to fight it. Today, they are called “shoboshi” (消防士) but everyone also knows the old name: “hikeshi” (火消し) –“the ones who put out fires”.
Initially formed to protect the Tokugawa shoguns in their castle and the daimiyo, the feudal lords they forced to live in Edo, they soon expanded their protection to the common townspeople; fires were so common that people used to call them, together with brawls, “flowers of Edo”. Recruited from the construction workers’ class, both because they already knew how to work on heights and scaffolds and because they could bring down a house very quickly –demolition was the only way to stop the fire from spreading- and with the huge matoi (纏) standards, the ladders, the pickaxes, the hanten (半纏) jackets which they soaked in water before going into a fire and their whole-body tattoo suits that served as identification when the fire outdid them as their symbols, they quickly became Edo’s guardian angels.
Modern Tokyo Fire Department is among the most well organized in the world. But the hikeshi still exist to keep alive the memory of the hundreds of thousands who died in the big and small fires of Edo and early Tokyo. In their everyday lives they wear the standard workers’ clothes but in the city’s festivals they bring out their bright-colored hanten, their headbands, their straw waraji (草鞋) sandals and, on the odd occasion, their matoi and they go out on the streets heading the omikoshi processions. If you are lucky you also get to see them stand ladders and perform elaborate acrobatics or sing their “kiyari” (木遣), a long-drawn out tune/hymn that makes you shiver: hidden behind its bravado and defiance towards the red beast is the lament for its victims.