Embodying Japan: Cultures of Sport, Beauty, and Medicine 2017

Fire: Prevention and Purity in Edo

Edo’s Meireki fire in 1657 laid most of the city to waste in less than three days, and there were about 20 large fires and three earthquakes from 1600 to 1866 resulting in 108,000 deaths, yet fire is still seen in Edo a natural discourse of harmony in its positive aspects (Dunn 180). The purity of fire doubles as an allegory for refining the idea of something through trial and from this trial, the result is meant to be stronger than the previous concept.  When Edo’s buildings burnt down, contractors had the opportunity to rebuild the city and officials had the opportunity to legitimize themselves with the public. Thus the narrative of fire as purity can act as an impetus of change in a stagnant state of affairs concerning cooperation among citizens and class.
Furthermore, fire is associated with health as an additional effect of its’s nature of purification in the cauterization of wounds, the refinement of sharp implements for doctors, the burning of waste, and the preparation of fields. The key element in these uses of fire is getting rid of waste or impurities, which by fire’s total destruction of nearly anything it touches, probably caused it to be revered in early times by this fact alone. In some Shinto ceremonies, a bonfire was “thought of as harboring the spirit of a deity”, making the fire’s purity in taking this hosting role self-evident (Dunn 158).
Despite the narratives of purity surrounding fire, its destructive quality hit home with lower class citizens affected by a great fire or merchants whose assets were destroyed in fires. This doesn’t necessarily draw the connection of fire as being impure, but precautions similar to everyday cleanliness were taken to prevent the damage from getting out of hand: “…“Thatched roofs were prohibited but wooden shingles allowed. Large tubs of water and piles of buckets were provided in the streets…people with valuables kept them in fireproof storehouses, or in chests fitted with castors to allow them to be pushed easily into the streets through the walls. They were always prepared to snatch up portable objects and leave their homes.” (Dunn 181). Should these precautions fail to protect the persons involved, the risk of impurity by the waste of the fire, or disease by waste receptacles being displaced would then be present. Those that professionally dealt with destructive fires, machibikeshi, were also considered lower class compared to those who exclusively dealt with ritualistic, controlled fires, the Shinto priests and therefore less ritually pure.
In comparison to firefighters, the impurity of the burakumin, or those who did the dirty work of Buddhist communities was much more pronounced (Robertson 332). Acting with agents of purity in fighting fires yielded a better reputation even for those who were considered low class than handling dead bodies or anything considered ritually impure in Buddist belief during this period. “In the Tokugawa period, their [burakumin’s] symbolic pollution and marginality was imagined to be ‘‘infectious,’’ and later, with the conflation in eugenic discourse of blood and heredity, inherited and inheritable” (Robertson 332). There are accounts of burakumin being separate from the rest of Japanese society but firefighters were not restricted in this sense other than being lower class. Firefighters were even subject to harsher reprimands for not acting according to their station of trust in the community (Wills 78). Considering this trend, the shift from inherited “infection” concerning social standing to  slightly more merit-based policies concerning recognition in firefighting might have been helped by the image of fire as something pure, by which the lower class could purify themselves and improve their lot in life.

Works Cited

Dunn, Charles J. Everyday Life in Traditional Japan. London: Charles E Tuttle Company, Inc., 1969.

Robertson, Jennifer. Post-Compulsory Schooling and the Legacy of Imperialism, Blackwell Publishing. 2005.

 Wills, S. (2010). Fires and fight: Urban conflagration, governance, and society in edo-tokyo, 1657–1890 (Order No. 3448003). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (858611493). Retrieved fromhttp://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/858611493?accountid=14244


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