Fires were formerly so common in Japan's wood and paper cities that the nickname of "Yedo Blossoms" was applied to the flames which in winter almost nightly lit up the metropolis with lurid lustre. So completely did this destructive agency establish itself as a national institution that a whole vocabulary grew up to express every shade of meaning in matters fiery. The Japanese language has special terms for an incendiary fire, an accidental fire, fire starting from one's own house, a fire caught from next door, a fire which one shares with others, a fire which is burning to an end, the flame of a fire, anything for instance, a brazier from which a fire may arise, the side from which to attack a fire in order to extinguish it, a visit of condolence after a fire, and so on. We have not given half. Were all records except the linguistic record destroyed, one would still be able to divine how terrible an enemy fire had been to Japanese antiquities. Fire insurance, be it observed, was not among the words connected with fire in Old Japan. It dates only from the new regime, being Europe's contribution to the vocabulary. At first the practice of insurance gained ground but slowly. It may be matter for wonder that capitalists should have found it worth their while to assume risks so heavy. Under the circumstances, very high premiums are still charged; but despite this drawback, the people seem now thoroughly to appreciate the advantage of purchasing peace of mind even at a heavy price, and for several years past companies have been in operation all over the country to insure against fire and other calamities.
To Ōoka, the Japanese Solomon, who was mayor and judge of Yedo early in the eighteenth century, belongs the credit of having organised the fire-brigades which formed so useful and picturesque a feature of Yedo life. Since his day, fire engines of European make have been brought into use. Moreover, the number of conflagrations has been much diminished of late years by the gradual introduction of stone and brick buildings and of wider streets, and by stricter police control. Even, therefore, granting the possible truth of the popular assertion that in some parts of Tōkyō houses were only expected to survive three years, that state of things happily belongs to the past. Still, fire is an ever-dreaded foe. It is a foe at whose entry into the city the carpenters, unless they are greatly maligned, have frequently connived, because it brings them work; and the peculiar dress and antics of the firemen are things which no visitor to Japan should miss a chance of seeing. Every year, on the 4th January, the firemen parade the streets with their tall, light ladders, and give a gymnastic performance gratis.
The most famous of all the many great Yedo fires was that of 1657, when nearly half the city was destroyed and over 107,000 persons are said to have perished in the flames. The government undertook the necessary gigantic interment, for which the grounds of what is now known as the temple of Ekō-in were selected, and priests from all the Buddhist sects were called together to hold a seven days service for the benefit of the souls of the departed. Wrestling-matches are now held in the same place, a survival apparently of festivals formerly religious, which consisted in bringing holy images from the provinces to be worshipped awhile by the Yedo folk and thus collect money for the temple, which could not rely on the usual means of support, namely, gifts from the relations of the dead, the fire of 1657 having been so destructive as to sweep away whole families. The occurrence of every great fire in Tōkyō is now wisely availed of in connection with a fixed plan of city improvement, involving new thoroughfares and the widening of old ones.
- Here are the Japanese originals of the above terms, for the benefit of the curious: tsuke-bi, sosō-bi jikwa, morai-bi, ruishō, shita-bi, hinote, hinomoto, keshi-kuchi, kwaji-mimai. Fire insurance mentioned just below, is kiuasai-hoken.