Volunteer Firefighter International

Japan: 19th Century Firefighting Coats Were Works of Art

Once the fire was contained, firefighters turned their coats inside out to show the intricate symbols they believed protected them

By Madeleine Mazdakis, My Modern Met

During Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) firefighters were responsible for stopping blazes before the flames ran rampant through a city’s wooden buildings. Many stunning examples of firemen’s coats (called hikeshi banten) have survived from the nineteenth century. On the outside, these long coats function similar to modern firefighter uniforms by identifying the wearer with their fire brigade. However, the insides of the coat were decorated in elaborate scenes of strength and heroism drawn from Japanese legends.

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The coats served many purposes. The thick quilting would be soaked in water to protect firemen from the flames as they destroyed burning houses. This dangerous strategy of firefighting was necessary before modern hoses. By destroying one burning building, the firefighters contained the damage rather than allowing the fire to spread over wooden rooftops. Once successfully extinguished, the firefighters would reverse their coats to display the intricate symbolism which had protected them while fighting the fire. Critical to any city’s survival, firefighters were revered for their strength and bravery.

Found in many museums today, Japanese firemen’s coats are usually displayed with their fabulous interiors facing outwards so visitors can see the master craftsmanship and learn more about the figures represented. A coat could take weeks to create.

The sashiko technique (meaning “little stabs”) refers to the detailed quilting method used to bind the layers of the coat. The coat would then be dyed using the tsutsugaki method. This method uses rice paste, which is applied to the fabric and prevents the dye from adhering. By repeat use, the method allows for the creation of intricate designs.

Read the full story here.

Images: Wikimedia Commons

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