Hi-no-Yojin (fire prevention in Japan)

Fire prevention label for Fukagawa Hospitality Workers Union, 37 x 56 mm
Fire prevention label for Fukagawa Hospitality Workers Union, 37 x 56 mm

Exhibitor Takeshi Yokomizo

Click here for Japanese language version


From olden days until recently, Japanese houses were mostly built from wood. When towns and cities developed and wooden houses were built densely, fire became an especially big hazard. Wooden constructions prompted fire to spread quickly and people constantly suffered from many conflagrations throughout history. The fear of fire disaster and the importance of awareness of fire prevention were shared by people and communities throughout the country.

Hi-no-Yojin” was, and still is a popular fire prevention slogan (in English this means “Watch out the fire”). Boxes of matches carrying this slogan started appearing in the early Showa-era (the late 1920’s till early 1940’s), and played a big part in raising people’s awareness of the danger.

The production of advertisement-matches burgeoned in the early Showa-era. Most match factories in Japan were of a relatively small scale and able to accept small orders for local clients. These labels became a good advertising medium for campaigning about fire prevention on a community basis. Some of these fire-prevention match labels featured equipment and symbolic objects relating to fire-fighting.

Fire prevention label for Oji Police Station, 37 x 56 mm
Fire prevention label for Oji Police Station, 37 x 56 mm

From the early 1920’s till 1960’s, fire watch-towers made of an iron framework were installed in every fire station.

A fire watch-ladder together with a fire-pump house were deployed to community-based volunteer fire companies (about 2,400 of them nationwide).

The fire watch-ladder played a key role in raising the alarm by ringing a fire-bell attached to the top of the tower. However, most watch-towers and watch-ladders fell into disuse as houses and buildings became taller.

Night-Watch for fire prevention in the winter started in 1648, in the Edo period. During the winter, a group of locals patrolled their neighbourhood area at night. They struck clappers and called out “Watch out the fire. A single match causes a fire!” while walking. Night-watch has been one of the seasonal traditions in Japan but complaints about the noise of the clapper increased and became an issue.

In the 18th century, the first official fire-company was formed in the capital Edo (Tokyo). It consisted of 48 regional and 16 capital brigades.

Matoi represented each brigade and were used like a flag. Fire-fighters rushed to the site and placed Matoi at the top of the roof showing local people their presence. The 48 regional brigades were mostly identified by the old Japanese alphabet (48 in total) like, “E-brigade, Ro-brigade, Ha-brigade…”.

The installation of fire-alarms in urban areas started in 1920. Modern fire extinguishers were distributed widely but fire-extinguishing buckets are still regularly installed as a basic fire extinguishing tool. The top cause for fire in the capital Tokyo has been careless smoking. 

More Fire Prevention labels from the early Showa-era are shown in the gallery below, click on an image to enlarge it.

Click here to return to the Gallery.

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