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)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 city2:
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.