Among the Japanese stories and legends there is that of the great Meireki fire (明 暦 の 大火, Meireki no taika) or the fire of the furisode. Let’s find out why it is called that.
The fire broke out in the winter of 1657, the third of the Meireki era, from which it takes its name. Fueled by strong winds blowing from the north-northwest, the firefighters took three days to tame it. In fact, the flames spread quickly, so much so that on the first evening the fire had spread from Hongo, in the city center, to the opposite bank of the Sumida, to Fukugawa and Kyobashi. The fire is thought to have been caused by a fire in or near a house, which was subsequently fueled by the wind.
On the second day the direction of the wind changed and the flames engulfed some buildings of the Edo castle, including the tower; fortunately the firefighters managed to contain the flames and the main buildings of the castle were not damaged. Despite these efforts, the ruins continued to burn for two days and the damage could only be estimated much later. However, the true extent of the damage is not known; according to sources, out of about 300,000 inhabitants, 25%-50% lost their lives in the Meireki fire, especially on the first day. Furthermore, about 60% of the city was completely destroyed and it took more than two years to rebuild.
This Japanese legend has that a furisode the cause of the Meireki fire. The furisode is a formal kimono, with long sleeves, worn by single women. Hence the alternative name of “long sleeve fire”.
One day a young woman, while she was walking with her mother, saw a boy she fell in love with at first sight. Unfortunately, every attempt to trace him failed; her parents gave her a furisode with a pattern similar to the kimono of her beloved, to cheer her up. However the young woman’s health began to deteriorate more and more, until she died at the age of 17. Her parents then decided to donate the furisode to the nearby temple.
Later, the monks sold it to a pawnshop and it was bought for another girl; she also died within a year, at 17. Her parents also donated the furisode to the temple, and it was once again sold at the pawnshop. It was bought again for a girl, but she too died within the year, at 17. When the furisode returned to the temple, the monks thought it was a strange series of events. After talking to the three families, they decided to burn the furisode, but something happened. Immediately after throwing it into the flames of the brazier, a gust of wind sent it flying up: for a moment it looked like a person floating in the air, and then it flew over the temple, setting the building on fire. From here the fire spread to the whole city.
The reconstruction of Edo
During the rebuilding phase, the Edo government developed a urban plan that focused on disaster prevention. The main points of this plan were essentially two.
First the periphery was expanded, doubling the radius of the city: in this way the aristocratic residences and the buildings of worship ‘encircled’ the center. It was during this period that the shogun ordered the aristocrats to build large ponds or lakes within their gardens.
During the second phase of the prevention plan, wider roads and a system of canals were built, which could help block the progress of the flames.
Edo has always been known as the city of fires, so much so that the firefighters (火 消し, hikeshi) had a certain reputation. They were in fact seen as heroes by the population and as a species of criminals by the authorities, since they tended not to respect the laws very much and had an extremely bold attitude.
The peculiarity of the Edo firefighters was that each unit was recognized by banners (纏, matoi), which were positioned to indicate and surround the area of the fire. The various units that arrived as they arrived placed their banners, until the flames had not been put out. This too was a somewhat peculiar procedure: the technique consisted of acrobatic moves on the roofs to demolish the neighboring buildings, which acted as a barrier, instead of extinguishing the fire directly.
Some examples of banners can be seen at the Tokyo Fire Museum in Shinjuku.
Cover image: By 田代幸春 (戸火事図巻（江戸東京博物館 Edo-Tokyo Museum ：収蔵品）) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons