August 31, 2021

Last storehouse standing

Chapter 10 of The Space Alien (which takes place in 1953) has the following description of a neighborhood in Setagaya ward in the southwest corner of Tokyo:

Less than a mile from Ichiro's house, a concrete storehouse stood alone in the middle of a field. During the war, air raids had destroyed all of the wood-frame houses on the block.

The genesis of these fireproof residential storehouses goes back three centuries.

The Great Meireki Fire (named after the imperial era or gengo) in 1657 destroyed over sixty percent of Edo (now Tokyo) proper and killed upwards of 100,000 people. Halfway around the world and less than a decade later, the Great Fire of London wreaked an equal amount of physical damage.

(Click image to enlarge.)

These two cities responded in quite different ways to these similar disasters. In the latter case, a concerted effort was made to prevent further conflagrations.

The revamped zoning laws and building codes of London specified wider streets and deeper setbacks, and opened access to the wharves along the Thames. Perhaps most importantly, brick and stone were required in the construction of new buildings, resulting in thicker walls and heavier framing.

Famed architect Christopher Wren distinguished himself during this period, rebuilding fifty-two churches along with many secular buildings in London.

These building requirements raised the cost of housing and slowed the overall growth of London, but were effective at preventing further similar disasters until the air raids of the Blitz.

During the rebuilding of Edo, city planners moved the larger estates and many shrines and temples to the outskirts of the city, opening access to the rivers and widening the main thoroughfares. However, in almost every other respect, they took a completely opposite approach to fire prevention.

In short, the point wasn't to prevent fires but to slow fires down and give people time to escape. Fire was treated as a natural disaster, like earthquakes, tsunamis, and typhoons. Survival mattered, not, as George Carlin famously phrased it, saving your "stuff." A very Zen philosophy.

The result of this policy was that, on average, an Edokko could expect his house to burn down at least once during his lifetime. In 1806, the haiku poet Issa Kobayashi wrote of a fire in the Shitaya district where he was living at the time (courtesy David Lanoue, edited for syllable count):

Everything has burned
down to and including the
blameless mosquitoes

Firefighters in Edo (the true action heroes of the era) took pretty much the same approach as hotshot crews in the United States today. The lightweight wood frame row houses that were home to the majority of Edo's population were a key part of the strategy.

When the fire alarms rang, firefighters first collapsed the flimsy row houses in the path of the flames. The "floor" formed by the roof tiles created a firebreak. The row houses were inexpensive to rebuild, and neighborhood mutual insurance organizations covered the costs.

A wealthy family might keep an entire house on layaway at a lumberyard, like the one depicted (at the bottom right) in Hokusai's "Lumberyard on the Takekawa in Honjo." As an inside joke, Hokusai put his publisher's name on the placard.

(Click image to enlarge.)

These firefighting techniques successfully limited widespread loss of life without holding back the economic and population growth of Edo, that by the 18th century was the biggest city in the world. Nevertheless, the frequency of the fires themselves was not significantly curtailed until the twentieth century.

As Edward Seidensticker recounts in Low City, High City,

In a space of fifteen years, from early into middle Meiji, certain parts of Nihombashi were three times destroyed by fire. Much of what remained of the Tokugawa castle burned in 1873, and so the emperor spent more than a third of his reign in the Tokugawa mansion where the Akasaka Palace now stands. There were Yoshiwara fires in 1871, 1873, 1891, and 1911, and of course in 1923.

The devastation of the Great Meireki Fire was not equaled until the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo at the end of World War II. In both of these cases, fires broke out everywhere all at once, rendering traditional firefighting techniques ineffectual.

To be sure, Buddhist beliefs in the effervescence of life notwithstanding, the denizens of Edo weren't entirely nonchalant about the loss of their "stuff."

Residents of the row houses dug root cellars beneath their apartments, where they could stash their valuables during a fire. Landowners built a stone storehouse in a corner of the property away from the main house. These Edo period storehouses can still be found scattered throughout Japan.

In the NHK serial drama Warotenka, the Fujioka family returns to Osaka at the end of the war to find that only the wrought iron front gate and the storehouse survived the air raids. So they move into the storehouse until they can scrape together enough materials to rebuild the main house.

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