Fireman’s jacket
Sashiko stitch quilting, stenciled paste resist (tsutsugaki)

Firefighting required clothing that would stand up to unusual punishment. Firemen’s jackets were made of three layers of cotton – the outer, the lining and the inner padding. The layers were sewn together with so-called sashiko stitching – large, straight densely packed stitches at regular intervals. The thick layered cotton of the jacket and matching hood could be saturated with water to help protect against the intense heat generated by fire.

Fireman’s jackets were made in two lengths. This is the shorter length, which would have been worn over the longer coat. The celebrated polychrome fireman’s jackets depicting phantasms and legendary heroes (click here for an example) were worn on ceremonial occasions, not while fighting fires.

The firefighters of central Edo (present day Tokyo) were highly organized, and divided into dozens of groups. Each group had its designated letter or number, as well as a loosely defined geographical area that it was responsible for.

The large red crest on the back of this jacket (probably vermillion pigment) shows that the wearer belonged to the Ni Group (Ni Kumi – に組) of central Edo. Ni Kumi is also written down the collar on the front of the jacket.

Below, a Ni Kumi member is shown carrying the group’s standard. He has taken off one sleeve, which dangles at his waist, baring a heavily tattooed arm.

Because of the risks of their work, firemen were lionized by the public, and immortalized in a variety of woodblock prints. In the Meiji period print below, a fireman does acrobatics on a ladder high above the crowd gathered on Nihonbashi, one of the centers of Tokyo. Acrobatic demonstrations were entertaining, but also served to remind the public of the dangers of the work, and the skills and courage of the firefighters.