Edo (sometimes called City of Fires), was perhaps the most fire prone city in the world; there is a saying, “Fires and quarrels are the flowers of Edo, yet the greater essence is the fireman”. There were over five hundred major fires alone in the period between 1851 and 1867. The fires were the result of the paper and timber construction of the houses, the cooking fires and oil lamps and the hot dry conditions and density of the urban population. Naturally enough, citizens responded with alarm and terror at these events and relied on the tough organisations of firemen which had developed into organised gangs since their inception in the 18th century. There is an excellent wikipedia page on the subject.
The Hikeshi (firemen) were a unique phenomenon of Edo. A cross between gangsters and firefighters, these men were heroes to the urban population and feared by the authorities for their lawlessness and bravado. They were organised into 48 units or districts after the system was introduced by Edo magistrate Ooka Echizen in 1720. The purpose of the units was to tear down neighbouring buildings to the fire rather than attempt to extinguish it. This was achieved by climbing onto roofs with bamboo ladders and led to extraordinary acrobatic abilities – something still practiced today.
When a fire alarm sounded, the nearest of the units would rush to the scene and raise a standard known as a Matoi. These solid geometrical forms were unique to each unit and represent quite extraordinary sculptural beauty (more of which later). Other units would also attend, each with their own Matoi until the fire was dampened and its spread halted. The firemen were not only identified by their unit’s standard; they also wore distinctive and individual garments. Edo firefighters were equipped with heavy, multi-layered jackets fortheir protection; these jackets were dampened before a fire-fighting mission and splendidly decorated with motifs and characters, applied to identify the brigade of its owner. The Kunichika print above of Sawamura Tossho as Jabara has a background of a Hikeshi jacket showing the layered stitching and distinctive embroidery – in this case of a snake. There is a very fine description of the detail of the construction of these items on the site Daily Japanese Textiles which I recommend.
Despite the beauty of the jackets (and incidentally, the tattoos that became essential adornment for Hikeshi) it is the standards – the Matoi – which are the outstanding visual triumph of the Japanese fire service.
More or less unknown in the west, Matoi are most often seen in various ukiyo prints of the nineteenth century. Several notable series exist: Kunichika’s very fine series Matches for the Kana Syllables (Mitate iroha awase) where actors are paired with the syllables of the Iroha alphabet (there being conveniently 48 firefighter districts and 48 syllables). Kunichika also did a series of actor portraits carrying Matoi in 1871 called The Flowers of Edo. An early series by Yoshitoshi of 1865, A Celebration of Gallantry ( Isami no kotobuki ) features actors carrying Matoi, as does Firemen’s Standards of all Great Districts (1876). The photograph below is of Edo Hikeshi with the Matoi clearly visible in the background.
There are 48 Matoi which all more or less conform to a size and form derived from Japanese Kanji (although very indirectly). They are distinctive in their design and yet form part of a coherent family of designs in much the way that the minimalist sculpture of the late twentieth century explores sculptural form within the confinement of a few basic rules and restrictions. The whiteness, confidence and sculptural invention certainly puts me in mind of the American minimalist Sol le Wit. Le Wit’s sculptures of the 1980’s – a long series of pieces under the broad title Forms Derived From A Cube, uses an identical sculptural language to that of the Matoi – the cool, logical, manipulation of the space in and around a solid geometrical form.
Of course, a barely disguised trait of modernist sculpture is its debt to the Japanese aesthetic – one which it does its best to conceal or at the very least fails to acknowledge. Extraordinarily, the 48 forms were designed (evolved) by separate individuals/groups, although when seen as a group in the photograph below, they appear to be the work of one individual – like the installation of a contemporary artist. Like le Wit, the standards play with the idea of a theoretical solid form – a cuboid, and look for ways to subtract material from that virtual solid that suggest the presence of the sculptural voids. These marvellous sculptures – that is after all what they are – show how great and considered art can be made outside of conventional disciplines.
There is a fine site which sells memorabilia of these lovely things which I strongly recommend.