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

Firefighter Companies and the Nation State

      Before they were funded by the Tokugawa shogunate, volunteers in Edo would have to mobilize the surrounding citizens to put out fires in the immediate community. “At that time [in the Edo period], civil firefighting groups already existed but were not yet officially recognized and administrated by the town magistrates. Sixty years later, in 1718, groups of civil firefighters, the machibikeshi , were officially formed”  (Stolzenberg 104). The elite firefighters were already apart of the warrior class, although there is little data on how much recognition they had for this rank, relative to payment or status.  After the firefighting companies were properly established by the state, regulations about their business arose out of the need to control the interests of the state among these new, tight-knit communities of volunteers, concerning firefighting and cooperation with other companies. The lateral connections between volunteers existed before the authority of the state over the guilds, which is why so much concern is expressed over arson as a political tool, higher ranking persons taking advantage of poor firefighters with blackmail, and deviancy associated with being a part of the lower class. Fire itself  being such a threat temporarily evened the playing field of class among Edo’s citizens’ attempt to balance the welfare of citizens, property, and the reputation of elected officials. Firefighting guilds were notoriously competitive as to which company would respond to fires first, and so would have their own standards or matoi, and wore jackets with their unit name on the lapels to distinguish themselves (Wills 126). Competition between these guilds to improve themselves gives credit to the Foucaldian idea of self-regulation, but they were also competitive against the warrior class and other guilds in their own class, which led to more conflict for the magistrates.
      Once a firefighting guild had proved its worth and efficiency, it could be recognized by the magistrate. So too, individual firefighters could be recognized by the support of a merchant or official by supporting them financially or giving them tokens of pride.  “In a memo submitted to the city elder Taru Yozaemon in the first month of 1792, the chiefs explained that townsman firefighters had been rewarded for their dedication to their work with leather work coats {kawa haori} and the right to design increasingly elaborate standards.”(Wills 126). In both the wrestling and firefighting communities, the sense of mobility through the ranks and hierarchy is traceable, even if the common goal (such as putting out a fire) surmounts this image. As an example, a full-scale riot erupted when a fireman summoned is 165 member company to bail him out of a fight with a wrestler in an 1805 case (Wills 90). The firefighter had been alone and started the fight over his personal relationships but because of the urgency associated with the guild in firefighting, all those in his company responded quickly and received the same punishment. What is surprising is the loyalty involved in staying and continuing to fight the wrestlers rather than recognizing the punishment for being involved in fighting. This record doesn’t account for what rank the fireman was, which would be interesting to note if the same loyalty would be shown for a younger firefighter of the same guild, owing to hierarchy but still deferring to loyalty to the guild in their response. Bodies in service of the state acting in a typical performance of their trade, responding quickly, proved to be a disturbance to the state when its finer points like class loyalty were accentuated. This incident in which the response produced an undesired effect reveals how much the state relied on the training and shaping of these responders to operate correctly for their purposes.

Works Cited

Stolzenberg, Thorsten. "Between Coquetry and Gallantry." Stockhom University. 2016.

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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