Fire Fighting in Japan.
There may be an American fire-engine in Tokio, writes Douglas Sladen in The New York Recorder, but I never saw one, and if anybody wants a high-toned contrast he can’t do better than drop into the fire station at the back of the Grand Hotel, San Francisco, the day before he sails for Japan (at 12 o’clock sharp) to see the men slide down the pole from their bedroom, and the horses harness themselves inside of a few seconds—and then when he gets to Tokio go to the first good fire.
They have first-class fires in Japan. While we ourselves were in Tokio there was a fire at Asakusa, one of the suburbs, which swept off fourteen hundred houses in one night.
The houses at Asakusa, it is true, since they are inhabited almost entirely by the poorer classes, don’t amount to much. A fifty-dollar bill would buy a good many of them, ground and all. They are merely wooden frames, with sides made of paper shutters (shoji) and wooden outside shutters to put up night or in very rainy weather. The roofs are covered with the heavy chaneled tiles in use all over Japan. Fires are great fun in Japan. It is almost impossible to take them seriously. As nearly all the houses are one-storied and so flimsy that you can kick your way through them, a person can hardly be burned unless he is asleep. But a two-story house fire gives most fun, for it is here that the bamboo ladder and the Swiss milking-pail come into play.
Every Japanese fire brigade conducted upon national principles has one or more ladders made of green bamboo, with their rungs lashed on, and the lashings very likely of paper twine. These are used for acrobatic displays at the New Year’s festival and for fires. In the latter if the fire is not too dangerous to be tackled, the ladder is propped up against the roof, and one man mounting it, stands on the roof, and one or two more stand at arm’s reach intervals on the ladder, and half a dozen others bring them the buckets, which look like Swiss milking-pails, and hold about a gallon of water each. These are passed up and emptied by hand.
This, however, does not, as might have been supposed from a study of the Japanese, constitute the whole fire-subduing apparatus. There is a native fire engine (a water-kago), looking like a water-trough, fitted with a lid, and staves for carrying it like those used (in pictures) for the Ark of the Covenant. It would go inside the average Saratoga trunk, and is fitted with a bamboo pipe and nozzle through which water can be squirted, but without the power or the volume of a garden hydrant.
A man runs in front of this car ringing a bell or blowing a horn, because the population arc not supposed to be able to take care of themselves in the matter of being run over. It is usually escorted by a number of firemen with axes, which are bamboos about six feet long with a little pick or hook for a head. The fierceness with which the Japanese can contest the flames may be gathered from the fact that they wear cotton d 1 esses and use paper lanterns. They also carry a huge paper standard to every fire, shaped like an orange, about a foot and a half in diameter, with paper fringe a foot long stuck on the end of a six-foot pole. This is planted at a respectful distance from the fire, and the firemen generally stand by it till the fire has burned itself out into reasonableness. It is white and has the crest of the guild painted upon it in black. There are about seventy of these guilds in Tokio, and they usually have from forty to fifty members each.
The fire station is like any other Japanese house of the poorer sort, except for its lookout, which is a tall pole ascended
by a bamboo ladder with a sort of a cross-tree at the top for the watchman to stand on, and a big alarm bell (or him to ring. Or very often it will be only a tall ladder, planted firmly at the bottom, rising perpendicularly into the air with a bell hung at the top.
Henry Savage Landor, the artist, grandson of Waiter Sav. age Landor, the famous English poet, well known himself as a portrait painter in some parts of the United States (from which, at the age of 20, he took $10,000 in nine months, after painting the portraits of a fine assortment of celebrities from President Harrison and Mrs. James Brown Potter downward), had a risky adventure with the Japanese firemen.
Lander is an ardent realist; he will expose himself to any danger or privations to secure subjects not previously handled by artists. He had himself shaved before he took his famous 2800-mile journey among the vermin-covered Ainos ; for he made up his mind from the first to live right among them and sketch their life from inner knowledge. And lie had his head broken by the New York ]>olice for his ardor on behalf of The London Graphic at Centennial time. Landor was staying at Ozaka, the Liverpool of Japan, at the Jivotei Hotel, which pretends to be on the European plan, when he was roused by the landlord, who told him, in very broken English, that the neighboring houses were on fire, and that no one ever knew where a Japanese fire would stop. I^andor did not require this enticement, but leaped into his clothes to “ impressionize ” for his sketch-book a real Japanese fire. He got there before the firemen and busied himself with sketching the frightened people pouring out of their houses, carrying all their worldly possessions on their backs. One of the houses must have belonged to an old Samurai or fallen Daimio, for there was a woman hurrying along with the two fighting swords, once the insignia of gentle birth, and a tca-chest-shapcd box of armor, such as had gone out of use in the Revolution of ’68, more than twenty years before, and close by a couple of coolies were carrying, strung on a pole, one of the beautiful black lacquer chests, ornamented with gilt brass, used by the Daimios for clothes or armor.
The common people were for the most part carrying their possessions tied up in the large blue or green cloths used by tradesmen for bearing their wares. to their customers. And one couple were carrying a huge three-leaved screen to which, pet haps, they attached a great value, though it also served as a stretcher for carrying the rest of the contents of their house.
Presently they came along with an excited chatter that could be heard a quarter of a mile off. In front came the paper standard and behind a bristling array of paper lanterns on poles, bamboo ladders and fire axes. The houses by this time were burning so fiercely that the doughty firemen were afraid to tackle them, so Landor, sketch-book in band, seized a ladder and, propping it against the nearest two-story house, mounted the roof to show them an example, and in a minute was sketching away vigorously to take down the bizarre S|>ectac)c.
In his Archimedean enthusiasm he did not notice that the Japanese firemen had become alarmed for the safety of their ladder and carried it off. He was brought back to considerations mundane by the tiles proving too hot to sit on. He yelled to the Japanese to bring the ladder back, but none of them had the pluck. So, as the flames were beginning to break through the roof, he had to jump from the top of a twostory house and, of course, received a severe shaking, but fortunately broke no bones.
The firemen’s great day out is on the fourth day of the New Year Festival, when they go in procession through the principal streets of Tokio, especially the Ginza, the main street. Each guild goes about separately with its paper banner in front and its coolies, in new dresses of dark blue cotton, a tunic with a marvelous red cr white design on the back—the guild badge—and tight-fitting hose, which make them look, for all the world, like the varlets of the Shakespearian stage or attendants in Perugino’s pictures. At intervals they halt, rear one of their tall, green bamboo ladders perpendicularly in the air, and, crowding around, help to hold it tip or steady it with their fire axes. Then they ascend in turn and acrobatize on the top in a way that suggests that all Japanese firemen must be acrobats, even if all Japanese acrobats are not firemen.
The performer will one minute be standing on his head on the top of one of the uprights of the perpendicular ladder, and the next be suppo rting himself stiff out at right angles to the ladder. The populace crowd around, laugh, chatter and applaud, but as far as I could make out, no collection was taken up, which was a decided irregularity from a more civilized standpoint. There has been one historical fire in Japan, which, in point of mortality, probably puts even the great lire of London into the shade. Though it seems incomprehensible to me how ever any one could be burnt in a low, flimsy affair like a Japanese house, over 100,000 persons perished in it. It occurred a century or two ago in that hot-bed of fires, Asakusn, which, as being the quarter to which the gay women arc confined, ami much frequented by their rivals the singing women (Geishas), ami anyone concerned for the time being in painting the city of Tokio red, is particularly liable to accidental fires, above all, in a land where houses and lanterns are made of paper.
One forgets the details of this fire in the results. The victims were buried in a vast pit (like the one Sir Walter Manny gave the Londoners for the victims of the Black Death), on the site of which the b’-ko-in Temple now stands. A temple was reared where pious priests might pray lor their souls. All the priests in Japan of the most prominent Buddhist sect came together for seven days to offer so many thousand or million prayers. Then came a difficulty When a Japanese dies (they are generally Shintoists in their lives and Buddhists when they reach the poittf of death) his relations pay for him to be prayed for at the proper intervals, for priests cannot live like everybody else. This was impossible in the present cue, for nearly all the relative* hr.d perished together. So they called the ‘reinpie of the Helpless, ami twice every year organized a procession to it of the most famous images of the gtwls. which drew together a vast concourse of people, whose offerings provider! the prayers for the dead.