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A History of Japanese Hikeshi-Banten, Fireman's Jacket

sakiori sakiori

Edo period or Tokugawa period (1603 to 1868)
Tthe emergence of well organized fire brigades in large Japanese cities came during the Edo period. An Edo City (present day Tokyo) government document from 1738 mentions more than 11,000 employed fire fighters- in relation to a total population of about one million citizens. By 1850 24,000 hikeshi - as firemen were called in Japanese - were employed to protect Edo City from the extreme dangers of fire. Japanese houses were built entirely from wood, and the rooms were illuminated with oil lamps and candles. As a result, fires were common and prone to spread quickly throughout the city if not quickly contained by Japanese fire fighters.

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Firemen of the Edo period held a dual reputation among the Japanese citizenry. On one hand, firemen were admired for their bravery. On the other hand, they were loathed because of their lower class origins; nothing more than rowdies, criminals and drunks. Fire fighting jobs provided these unsavory characters with an income and a heroic reputation that would not ordinarily be available to them. Overall, ordinary citizens lionized the hikeshi-firemen as honorable bandits and brave troublemakers.

Body tattoos, widely popular among the men of the Edo fire brigades, displayed courageous and fearsome symbols, like dragons, and mythical battle heroes. Flamboyant tattoos demonstrated their masculinity and solidarity with one's comrades. However, that changed when the Edo period ended and the Meiji Restoration beganot;naga", The Ryujin Shinko Shinto sect worships dragons.
hikeshi banten
The Meiji Era (1868-1912)
With the establishment of the Meiji period, the Japanese government consolidated from independent fiefdoms to a single administrative state under the control of the Emperor. Furthermore, Japan desired to become a member of the leading nations as a civilized, modern and sophisticated country.

Among one of many changes, the new government regarded tattooing as a sign of barbarism, and in 1872, prohibited all body tattoos even for the respected firefighter.

The new tattooing regulation did not set well with the spirited firefighters but nevertheless they understood that the law must be strictly obeyed. And, suddenly at the same time, thousands of tattoo artists were out of a job. What to do? Someone came up with the bright idea of having the former tattoo artist embellish the interior of the fireman’s jackets in the tsutsugaki dyeing method with the same heroic images that were once allowed as body tattoos. The tattoo artist created a permanent replacement occupation and the firefighter could continue displaying the same prideful heroic images that were once body tattoos. Thus, the genesis of the colorful and dramatic Japanese fireman’s hikeshi-bantan fire jacket.

Called hikeshi-banten, a Japanese fireman's jacket was a handmade garment made up of several layers of highly absorbent indigo cotton fabric. The firemen drenched their jackets with water before beginning to fight the fire. The thick padding of fabric layers allowed for maximum water penetration and cushioning which helped to safeguard the fireman from burns and help blunt injuries from falling objects.

The exterior layer was a sakiori textile while the liner fabric showed detailed close rows of binding sashiko stitching. The firemen also wore protective hats, gloves and pants constructed in the same manner as the jacket.

The jacket was reversible. While fighting fires the plain side was exposed. After the fire had been extinguished, the fireman would reverse his jacket and the decorative images would be displayed to cheering onlookers, pridefully symbolizing a successful outcome. The interior was adorned with marvelous tsutsugaki characters taken from heroic historical/mythical that were important to the firefighters.

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