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Firefighters in happi coats perform acrobatic stunts on top of bamboo ladders. The ladder stunts were the main event of Japanese New Year celebrations. The demonstrations, called dezome-shiki (出初め式), were intended to warn people of the dangers of fire, and to demonstrate the agility and courage of the firefighters.
The old way to fight fires was to tear down surrounding houses, so ladders were needed to climb on roofs. Because of the climbing involved, especially scaffolding workers served as firemen. They had incredible strength and stamina because of having to build scaffolds on a daily basis. The demonstration was preceded with the firemen praying at a shrine for their safety during the coming year. Dezome-shiki are still held at many towns today.
These demonstrations were no luxury. Fires were at the order of the day in cities made almost completely of wood. They were so common that people actually kind of grew used to them, although the fear never subsided as Jukichi Inoue (井上十吉), famed for Inouye’s comprehensive Japanese-English dictionary (井上和英大辭典), explained in his book about daily life in Tokyo at the end of the Meiji Period (1868-1912).
It is so easy to burn down a wooden house. A rag soaked with kerosene is enough to destroy any number of houses and is the favourite means with incendiaries who hope to steal household goods which are brought out in confusion into the street whenever there is a fire in the neighboorhood.
Besides, a slight act of carelessness or neglect may lead to a terrible conflagration; a candle left too near a paper sliding door was the origin of the great fire of 1892 already-mentioned. Similarly, a kerosene lamp or brazier overturned, a pinch of lighted tobacco or an unextinguished cigar-end, an over-heated stove or a piece of red-hot charcoal dropped on the floor, these are among the commonest causes of fires; and even the cheap Japanese matches, of which the splints are not dipped in paraffin, at least half a dozen are needed to light a cigarette in the open air, are responsible for as many fires every year.
Since such slight accidents may at any time lead to great disasters, the inhabitants, as they go to bed, are never sure, especially in crowded quarters, of still having a roof over their heads next morning. They may be aroused from their slumbers by the dreaded triple peal of the alarm-bell and find the neighboring street or next door wrapped in flames, and just manage to run out of their houses with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
We are however, so used to the fire-alarm that if the peals are double to indicate that the fire is in the next district, we only get out of bed to look at it from idle curiosity and turn in again unless our house is leeward of the burning district or we have to run to the assistance of a friend there; and if the bell gives only single peals, which signify that at least one district intervenes between the burning street and the fire-lookout, we turn in our beds and perhaps picture to ourselves the lively time they must be having in that street. A fire is, on account of its uncertainty and suddenness, only less feared than an earthquake, and the general feeling among citizens is that of insecurity.1
To young people, the raging fires offered excitement and a form of entertainment. In his biography, Yukichi Fukuzawa, the founder of Keio University, recalled a fire he experienced in Osaka during the second half of the 1850s, when he was a student in that city:
There under the peach blossoms we were making merry with the lunch and wine cups when suddenly we noticed in the distance the smoke of a big fire. It was exactly in the direction of Dotōmbori where one of us, Nagayo, had gone that day to see a play. The fire was of no great concern to us, but of course we thought of going to rescue Nagayo. So we ran all the way from Momoyama to Dotōmbori, a distance of some six or seven miles. But by the time we reached there all of the three theaters had burned to the ground and the fire was extending to the north. We were anxious about Nagayo, but there was hardly any way of locating him.
Soon it grew dark. “Well, Nagayo must have gotten home already. Let’s go and see the fire.” So we went right into the burning area. People were running about, carrying their goods to safety. “Let’s help them,” we said. And we carried bundles of bedding tied in large square of cloth and the family chests and heavy things. Gradually we worked our way to the very edge of the fire. There were firemen pulling down houses with ropes tied to the pillars. The firemen asked us to help them, so we fell in and worked with the ropes among the burning houses. Then they gave us rice balls and wine. We worked, ate, and drank all we wanted. At about eight in the evening we came back to the dormitory. But the fire was still burning. Some of the more vigorous boys wanted to go back and have more fun. Back went several to the scene. It happened that the onlookers at fires in Ōsaka were quite different from those in Tōkyō. Large crowds would gather making plenty of noise, but not too near the burning area. Once we shouted loud enough for gangway, we could easily push our way through the outer crowd into the heart of the fire, where there was nobody except the professional firemen. So the Ogata students, alone with the firemen, had the most lively diversion of fighting the fire.2
As is clear from these descriptions, fires were common and could—and often did— devastate large areas. Therefore, behind the cheerful entertainment of all the acrobatic stunts that the firemen performed during New Year, there was a very serious message, of which all onlookers must have been extremely aware.
See more photos of New Year celebrations in Japan.
1 Inouye, Jukichi (1991). Home Life in Tokyo. The Tokyo Printing Company, Ltd., 30-31.
2 Fukuzawa, Yukichi (1972). The autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa. Schocken Books, 77-78. ISBN: 080520332X.