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Monday, 3 June 2013

Japanese "Hikeshi" , fire fighters.

I have just changed the description of a Japanese porcelain vase that has been on the web site for a while because, after some research, I found out the vase was of greater interest than I had first believed. Initially I thought it depicted a scene of two groups of Samurai warriors wearing their armour and holding a ladder up in order to provide a look out to see into the distance when in fact it shows Japanese firemen holding up a ladder at a "Dezomeshiki" festival of fire fighters.

The tradition of the Japanese fire fighters known as "Hikishi" go back several centuries and there have been professional Hikishi since the 17th century and, as in the west, they were idolised and the children hero worshipped them.
There were three kinds of Hikeshi.

1. Jobiskeshi-  who were part of the Samurai class and protected Samurai and the Shogun's residences from fire.

2. Daimyo-Bikeshi- who protected the rice warehouses and public buildings and were hand picked by their Samurai lords.

3.Machi-Bikeshi- who protected the houses of the lower classes and working people and because of this were much loved by the common man.

The Machi Bikeshi were eventually allowed to have "Matoi", as can be seen in the photograph above, three dimensional standards that each brigade had as its badge or emblem. Originally only the Samurai had these but in the 18th Century all were allowed a standard.

The brigades would have watch towers around the city to look out for fires and if a fire could be seen a system of bell ringing would call the Hikeshi to action. The fire fighters would go to the fires with buckets and hand pumps to extinguish the fire but they also carried long poles with hooks on the end, called "Tobiguchi", to help pull down buildings to stop the fire spreading - the Tobiguchi can be seen in the picture above. 

The ladders could be held by a group of Hikeshi so that a smaller member could climb to the top to be a look out in order to identify the location of the fire.  As most of the wooden buildings in Japan were only  two storeys high, in this way the lookout could clearly see over the tops of them.
The Hikeshi wore decorative fire proof jackets that were woven from several layers of material which was soaked before going to fight a fire.
Each year the Hikeshi would have a festival of fire fighters, "Dezomeshiki" and to demonstrate their prowess the member who climbs to the top of the ladder would do handstands and other acrobatics and I believe the vase is a celebration of the Dezomeshiki festival.

(With thanks to Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report, for providing some useful information)

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