Tokyo’s ‘Hinoyojin’ fire patrol tradition dates back to the Edo era
Last December, I attended dinner at a friend’s apartment in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, an old neighbourhood in Tokyo known for its mom-and-pop shops and narrow alleyways.
We were interrupted midway through our dinner by the sound of wooden objects being hit twice on the street, followed by a theatrical cry of “Hinoyojin!”. This ritualistic performance repeated itself, creating a rhythmic pattern.
Apparently, our unseen interrupter is a watchman who participates in the hinoyojin no saimatsu keikai (year-end fire patrol) during the winter season. His call of “Hinoyojin” translates to “Beware of fires” as he walks around the neighbourhood in the evenings knocking a pair of wooden clappers to remind residents of fire safety.
It felt like an anachronism in a city whose soundtrack is largely electronic, where ticket machines and train stations play melodies for departing trains, and ticket machines communicate in bleeps and bloops.
As I stepped out of my apartment, I caught a glimpse of the watchman turning into a dark alley, his wooden clappers and chant echoing lightly into the night. (My quip was accurate; more on that later.) The journalist in me wanted to run and catch up with this fleeting figure – whom I imagined to be dressed in some traditional garb – but I reined in this impulse, not wanting to keep my host (and her delicious hotpot) waiting.
It turns out the hinoyojin watchmen are ordinary folks dressed, well, ordinarily: I spotted a group of them, mostly elderly, on another evening, this time from a restaurant window in Ogibashi, another shitamachi district. They wore safety vests, held light batons, and performed the wooden clapper routine, which led everyone else to chant as one.
A little-known practice to foreigners, I decided to find out more.
The origins of the hinoyojin patrol can be traced back to the Edo period (1603 to 1867) when fires were a common occurrence in towns as buildings were built of wood. During the reign of Tokugawa Yoshimune, the eighth shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, the first firefighting teams of towns were established in 1718.
Currently, the hinoyojin patrols are organized by the chokai (town council) and jichikai (resident associations) of each ku (ward) in a city. In large cities like Tokyo and Osaka, with their high urban density, there can be hundreds of chokai within a single ward. It is estimated that Tokyo’s Koto Ward, which encloses Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, has 280 chokai and jichikai under its administration, despite being one of the city’s smaller wards by density.