Firefighters, the second most popular option for what to do when the roof is on fire, are seen today as heroes battling the elements in an endless roshambo of fire-water-kitten stuck in a tree. But during the peaceful Edo period in Japan, Tokyo's bravest weren't just regarded as the saviors of shacks but also as dazzling fashion icons strutting their stuff through the burning rubble.
Not something you put on a tourist brochure, but during the Edo period (1600-1863), the Japanese capitol's claim to fame was how often it would burn to the ground. Due to overpopulation (and Japan's enduring love of paper walls), Tokyo/Edo saw 49 great fires and 1,798 recorded regular fires, earning it the nickname "City of Fires." As a response, the shogunate decided to create the hikeshi (firefighting) system of dedicated fire brigades throughout the city. These firefighters were seen as heroic daredevils, walking into fires and tearing down blazing buildings every week armed with nothing but ladders, hooks, and heavy cotton coats.
And a firefighter's most prized possession was their firefighter jacket (hikeshi banten), which served two distinct purposes. First, its dense cotton would be soaked in water to prevent the firefighter from burning to a crisp. Second, it was used to strut their stuff. Like all the cool kids in middle school, a firefighter's jacket was reversible. The plain side, emblazoned with a geometrical pattern and the name of their unit, was used to absorb the flames and soot of an ongoing fire. But after the fire had been vanquished, like a Street Fighter character unlocking a special outfit, firefighters would flip their jackets to reveal a gorgeously dyed work of art to dazzle cheering onlookers.
The image of their hikeshi banten was chosen by the firefighter themselves and typically depicted scenes linked to strength and heroism. Many jackets had some sort of water motif, like crashing waves …
Or a legendary strongman sauntering out of the water like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit centerfold.
As typical were jackets that depicted heroic figures fighting the forces of nature. Like a samurai sword fighting with a fire spirit ...
Or just, like, a really really big evil fish.
Many firefighters (especially the lower-class ones) would also get elaborate body tattoos that would match their jacket, the art flowing from the cotton onto their skin. This all in the belief that the heroic scenes hugging their frail, flammable bodies would protect them while they risked their lives keeping safe a city that caught fire more often than the neighbor's shed of a 14-year-old pyromaniac.
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Top Image: Kunichika Toyohara