Japanese Firemen’s Coats (19th century)

During the Edo period in Japan (1615–1868), crowded living conditions and wooden buildings gave rise to frequent fires — so frequent in fact it was said that “fires and quarrels were the flowers of Edo”. The socially segregated brigades formed to combat these fires were made up of either samurais (buke hikeshi) or commoners (machi hikeshi), but whatever their class their methods were the same: they would destroy the buildings surrounding the fire in an effort to contain it. Although experiments with wooden pumps were made, limited water supply rendered this more modern firefighting method impractical.

Each firefighter in a given brigade was outfitted with a special reversible coat (hikeshi banten), plain but for the name of the brigade on one side and decorated with richly symbolic imagery on the other. Made of several layers of quilted cotton fabric, using a process called the sashiko technique, and resist-dyed using the tsutsugaki method, these coats would be worn plain-side out and thoroughly soaked in water before the firefighters entered the scene of the blaze. No doubt the men wore them this way round to protect the dyed images from damage, but they were probably also concerned with protecting themselves, as they went about their dangerous work, through direct contact with the heroes and creatures represented on the insides of these beautiful garments.

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