The Sumida River was sure to rise every year, either directly endangering the Low City slums or increasing the spread of rat- or fly-borne diseases. But in a town of close-packed wooden houses, every one with a hearth, the greatest danger was fire. Periodic conflagrations destroyed entire districts of the city, and could be kicked off by a single errant spark. The most boggling was the Meireki Fire of January 1657 (like many such events, it derives its name from the reign-period in which it took place), which began, like some horror movie foreshadowing, with a haunted kimono.
This article of clothing had been owned by three girls in succession, every one of whom had met with a sudden death. Believing the kimono to be cursed, its new owners ordered it to be burned at a Buddhist temple. A gust of strong wind lifted up fragments of the burning silk and deposited them on a temple roof, which soon caught alight. The flames jumped from temple to tavern, over bridges and storehouses, burning down six entire districts. In the chaos, a second fire started, perhaps from a neglected cooking stove or a dropped tobacco pipe. With the populace already distracted by the first fire, the second raged through the samurai district, burning the inmates of the city prison alive, and even destroying Edo Castle. Over 100,000 people, a third of the entire population, died in the two days of the Meireki Fire, not merely from the flames, but from the wintry aftermath. Even as the wreckage still smouldered, snow began to fall with mocking irony, dooming many newly homeless residents to death by hypothermia.
Fires were so commonplace and so feared that the locals did not even dare to call them what they were. With a customarily poetic fatalism, they referred to them as ‘the flowers of Edo’. Many houses gained rooftop crow’s nests to allow the occupants to see how close nearby fires were getting. A common feature of every district was the hinomi-yagura (fire-watching tower), which looks to modern eyes like a pair of telegraph poles placed close enough together that the rungs of a ladder can run between them. At the top was a bell and a tiny perch no bigger than a footstool, allowing residents to peer into the next city block to see how great the risk was whenever they smelled smoke.
Eventually, Edo gained a new class of ‘firemen’ although their job description was somewhat different from what one might expect. Exhibiting a certain resignation about the impossibility of putting out a fire, they instead ransacked the house, carrying out the valuables to spare them the flames. Private enterprises rather than publically-funded do-gooders, the firemen existed as multiple rival brigades, often leading to scrums of contending rescuers at any disaster scene. Standard bearers carrying the standard of a particular firemen’s guild would perch as close to the burning building as possible, so that everyone could see who had arrived. Fire-hoses, using a relatively meagre hand-pumped stream from the nearest canal, were intended not to dowse the flames, but protect the firemen as they worked.
Over the years, it became apparent that the best way to protect one’s business was to strike a deal with the firemen in advance, so that they were sure to come quickly in the event of trouble. In order to make allegiances clear, many businesses started to hang the standards of particular guilds over their doors. This was the origin of the decorated noren, the half-curtain that can still be found at the entrance to many a shop or noodle bar.