Japanese Firemen’s Coats (19th century)
July 27, 2020 5:09 AM   Subscribe

Japanese Firemen’s Coats (19th century) "Each firefighter in a given brigade was outfitted with a special reversible coat , plain but for the name of the brigade on one side and decorated with richly symbolic imagery on the other."
posted by dhruva (20 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. These are so cool.
posted by notsnot at 5:44 AM on July 27, 2020

I saw a couple of these in an exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts some years ago. One feature that doesn’t really come through in the photos is that they were made out of heavy fabric with a sort of loose weave, I assume to better take in and retain water.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:13 AM on July 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Very nifty!

Here's a brief write-up on the headlining design with the spider menacing a Go board. (I was searching for a bit more detail on the legend, because the caption seemed to indicate the evil priest was disguised as a giant spider, which struck me as a terrible disguise to allay suspicion. Other way round! Which makes much more sense. Lots of people who mean ill are actually giant spiders in disguise.)
posted by Drastic at 6:27 AM on July 27, 2020 [13 favorites]

This site has some of the history and use of the coats, as well as pictures of people wearing them.
posted by thandal at 7:43 AM on July 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

I also have vivid memories of an exhibit of these from years ago! The swagger in the bright sides was just amazing.

There were some interesting technical things about the material, too - the exhibit was organized to compare high-status to low-status textiles, and it really showed off the skill in making beautiful durable garments out of cheaper material and with less labor.
posted by clew at 8:40 AM on July 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

These magnificent jackets would have been worn with a similarly padded hood with side and back flaps to protect the face and neck and a padded top to protect against falling debris.

I love the idea of their being reversible, with a fancy side for parades and a plainer one for actual fire-fighting. Some 19th century men's formal kimono, usually black with just a few small crests in white, had an elaborate painted or woven picture across the upper back of the lining , but were not (AFAIK) made to be reversible, so that the only people to see them would be the wearer and whoever hung the thing up.
posted by Fuchsoid at 9:02 AM on July 27, 2020 [7 favorites]

From thandal's link, I tried to find the largest image I could locate of the illustration of all the firefighter gear. Some of the items are obvious, and some very much not (at least to me). I wonder what the device at bottom middle is? I'm assuming the items on either side of it are head covering / protection?

Anyway, here's another interesting page about the Edo firefighters, including some images of firefighters and sumo wrestlers fighting (evidently, that was a "thing," as well as brigades fighting other brigades, and just generally fighting and being rowdy, apparently), and the story of Yaoya Oshichi: "Yaoya Oshichi was a 17 year old girl who lived in Edo towards the end of the seventeenth century. She is the best known arsonist in Japan..." There's also this image of a firefighters' brigade on the move. "They are carrying two long ladders, a "matori" standard (middle: white), and a wooden water pump (right) among others." (info page). And actually, I guess that answers my earlier question about the device at the bottom of the illustration ... it must be a wooden water pump.
posted by taz at 9:04 AM on July 27, 2020 [6 favorites]

I think the bottom middle is a water pump, but, as one of the articles noted, not a very effective one.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:13 AM on July 27, 2020

There's this japanese page as well. If you scroll down you can see a photo of a guy with a full firefighters uniform on.
posted by vacapinta at 9:24 AM on July 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Fascinating post. Shows an entirely different relationship towards personal safety gear. Firefighting then was very certainly a terrifying and dangerous job. They did not have access to flame retardant fabrics, gas masks, oxygen tanks, rubber, plastic, asbestos, etc. But this shows that this gear was considered extremely important, and likely the individuals who owned and used these had deep attachments towards them.

This is great art, but also a look into a mindset. Art history is fascinating to me because art is an integral part of understanding the human mental and physical condition and people's mindsets and beliefs. Art history is so much more than oil paintings on a white museum wall. It's virtual time travel, and probably the best way to put ones self into the shoes of another human being in the past.

Thanks for this post.
posted by SoberHighland at 9:29 AM on July 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

Awesome post, many thanks!
posted by carter at 10:31 AM on July 27, 2020

I flashed back to this Metafilter post from 2006. The link is broken, but here are two of the photos from the original article about modern municipal worker uniforms. Bottom line: there's no job in Japan that restricts you from looking like a badass.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 10:37 AM on July 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is amazing, thank you for posting it!
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:13 AM on July 27, 2020

I have one of these that I'd love to donate appropriately. It got turned down by the Wing Luke in Seattle. Anybody have suggestions for other places to try?
posted by abeb at 11:24 AM on July 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I heard that the original fire brigade was set up by an asshole entrepreneur in Ancient Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus. If there was a fire he would turn up with his equipment and large crew, and offer to buy the building for a low price. If the owner refused the offer, Marcus would take his crew and leave, letting the building burn to the ground.
posted by w0mbat at 12:20 PM on July 27, 2020

Oh my. These coats are gorgeous and the info about the mechanics of firefighting in past eras is fascinating. Thank you for this post!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:31 PM on July 27, 2020

This is so cool. Thank you for posting
posted by latkes at 2:31 PM on July 27, 2020

abeb, it wouldn't fit in a collection dedicated to the Asian-American experience, but possibly a museum with a textile and costume collection would be interested. Here's links to a bunch of them.
posted by Scram at 10:37 PM on July 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Wow. Flashback. I remember back in the 80s there was an underground store for Japanese anime, manga (and other imports) in a little shack on the top of the warehouse in Berkeley, CA. Her place was packed with all kinds of strange and wonderful, including a Japanese fireman's hat made from fabric.
posted by xtian at 5:49 AM on July 28, 2020

These are awesome. Thanks! Living as a long-term US expat in Japan, I've been a member of our local volunteer firefighters for 7 years now, and finally had our first real fire deployment to a house fire last year, which we were working to put out before a typhoon hit the next day. Crazy experience and I get occasional glimpses into the long firefighting history here, but first time seeing so many of their old happi jackets together.
posted by p3t3 at 12:01 AM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

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