Sukiyacho fire, Yubin hochi shinbun, 1155, December 1876
Copped and cropped from van den Ing and Schaap 1992
Triptych owned by Philadelphia Museum of Art
Other copy shown in Tokyo Shobocho 1980
Series: Yubin hochi shinbun
Issue: 1155 [Hochi 1876-11-29]
Number: 26
Date: Meiji 9 [1876-(12)] (otodoke)
Publisher: [Kinshodo]
Drawer: Taiso Yoshitoshi
Carver: Unconfirmed
Writer: Unconfirmed
Size: Three vertical oban
Yubin hochi shinbun
No. 1155 -- 1876-11-30?
Sukiyacho fire

Proud standards vying right and left

Several fire brigades are fighting a losing battle in a blaze that started late at night and raged till morning.

You can count the brigades by their numbered standards -- some engulfed by flames. Yoshitoshi had drawn them all before. And he would draw some again.

A book published by the Tokyo Fire Department in 1980, celebrating its centennial anniversary, devoted two pages to the Sukiyabashi fire. According to its account (see source particulars below), the fire broke out at a horse-feed facility around 11:20 on the evening of 29 November 1876. It burned until 7:00 the following morning, spreading through 70,262 tsubo (231,865 square meters), destroying 8,550 buildings, and leaving homeless, injured, or dead over 20,000 people.

The feed facility, run by a feed dealer named Suzuki Teizo, was on land Suzuki was renting beyond the outer moat in Sukiyacho 2-chome in Nihonbashi-ku. The fire began in a feed storage facility, escaped through the tile roof of the building. A northwest wind fanned the flames through 79 blocks along the moat and through adjacent neighborhoods.

A number of theaters were destroyed, including Shintomiza and Nagajimaza. The Australian Mission in Irifunecho, and a substantial part of the foreign settlement, perished in flames.


The work was drawn by Taiso Yoshitoshi. His signature followed the text of the story in the cartouche to the left of the banner -- but it is not clear that he was the author.

The margins are vermillion -- whereas those of all other known YHS nishikie were purple (accept a few copies that have unpigmented margins, probably the result of an oversight on the part of the printers).

The image shown here (from a published image of a copy in the Philadelphia Museum of Art) appear to have been trimmed, but a fragment of the notification (otodoke) date stamp clearly reads Meiji 9 (1876). The margin also appears to include fragments of what may be drawer, publisher, and price disclosures.

Triptych scarce

Very few copies of this triptych are known to exist -- judging from its rare mention, and even rarer showing, in publications.

The two images I have been able to examine -- one in a Japanese publication, another in an English exhibition catalog -- appear to be of different copies, for the alignments of the sheets where they meet are different.

Japanese sources

In 1980, the Tokyo Fire Department published a volume celebrating the first centennial of fire fighting in Tokyo. The book, which was not sold commercially, includes an article and other information on the 1876 Sukiyacho fire (pages 27-28, 616).

The Sukiyacho fire article shows a black-and-white image of the YHS-1155 triptych. However, the caption reads simply "Nishikie of Sukiyacho great fire (Yoshitoshi)" (page 28). No other information about the print is given -- no title, no numbers, and no source or ownership attributions.

Below the triptych is an image of a map showing the extent of the fire, attributed to the 1 December 1876 issue of Tokyo nichinichi shinbun.

Map showing extent of Sukiyacho fire
Tokyo nichinichi shinbun, 1 December 1876
Copped and cropped from Tokyo Shobocho 1980

Tokyo Fire Department centennial

東京の消防百年記念行事推進委員会 (編)
Tokyo no shobo hyakunen kinen koji suishin iinkai (hen)
[Committee for promotion of publication commemorating 100th year of fire fighting in Tokyo (editor)]
Tokyo no shobo hyakunen no ayumi
[A walk through 100 years of fire-fighting in Tokyo]
Tokyo: Tokyo Shobocho Shokuin Gojo Kumiai, 1980
[Tokyo Fire Department Employees Mutual Aid Union]
640 pages, hardcover, boxed
Over 50 pages of plates, numerous black-and-white illustrations, tables, maps

YHS-1155 is listed, but as having an uncertain number, in the table of known news nishikie on Tsuchiya 2000. A parenthetic note in the column for showing the name of the provider of the image on the CD-ROM states that the print was not included in the image database. Tsuchiya did not list the Sukiyacho fire triptych in a similar table in her earlier publication (Tsuchiya 1995), so apparently she ran across a reference to the print but was unable to confirm the paritculars or find a copy.

YHS-1155 is not alluded to in any of the several publications related to news nishikie. The CCMA 2008 exhibition book boasts that all prints are included -- but it misses both YHS-1155 and YHS-832. CCMA also claimed to have discovered prints that turn out to be listed in Tsuchiya's tables.

English sources

There are several oblique and direct references to YHS-1155 in English sources, and two sources show images of the print.

The Sukiyacho fire triptych was shown at a 1992-1993 exhibition called Beauty & Violence: Japanese prints by Yoshitohi, 1839-1892. The image posted here is a scan of a picture of the print in the exhibition catalog compiled by Eric van den Ing and Robert Schaap for the Society for Japanese Arts in The Netherlands (1992:51, see Bibliography).

The back matter of the catalog identifies the triptych as No. 1055 in the Yubin hochi shinbun series (1992:114), following Keyes doctoral disseration on Yoshitoshi (1982:407, item 315.59), see Bibliography). The dissertation also shows an image of the print, over a caption which identifies it as No. 1055 (25) (Keyes 1882:138, Plate 21b).

Clarification of numbers and dates

The number 1055 seemed too early, given the date of the fire, which occurred a month or so after the rebellions depicted in prints 1127 and 1144. Through a magnifying glass, the number on the right side of the banner appeared to be 1155, and the series number on the left looked like 26 -- another clue, since the series numbers on 1127 and 1144 were 20 and 22 (see YHS two series, three stages).

In January and February 2008, I corresponded with John Ittmann, Curator of Prints at Philadelphia Museum of Art, via email, and he confirmed, through a staff member who examined the print, which had been in storage, that the numbers on the title cartouche are in fact 1155 and 26. Moreover, the inscription panel on the left begins with the date Meiji 9th year, 11th month, 29th day, and the bottom left margin contains a printed circular seal that has been trimmed away but still reads Meiji 9th year.

Other references to Sukiyacho fire triptych

Keyes and Kuwayama 1980, in their discussion of "The Moon through Smoke" (page 96), write that "One of [Yoshitoshi's] most important prints was an 1875 triptych of a recent Tokyo fire whose raging flames are drawn and printed with the same freedom shown here" -- a somewhat inaccurate reference to YHS-1155.

YHS-1155 is shown and described in both Keyes 1982 (page 138 figure 21b, and page 407 No. 1055 [315.59]) and van den Ing and Schaap 1992 (page 51 plate 25.59, and page 114 No. 1055). Keyes 1982 links the "Enchu no tsuki" print in the Tsuki hyakushi series with YHS-1155.


At the time of the fire, Sukiyacho was in an area of Nihonbashi-ku that corresponds to Yaesu 2-chome in present-day Chuo-ku, a short walk from Hibiya, Yurakucho, and Ginza stations. It was reached by a bridge -- Sukiyabashi -- over the outer moat at what had been the Sukiyamon gate to the outer grounds of the former Edo castle.

Coming from the castle, one would exit the gate from the Marunouchi side, and cross the bridge to Owaricho on the right and Ginzamachi on the left.

The first Sukiyabashi was built in the 6th year of Kan'ei (寛永), circa 1829, on what is now Harumi-dori, the main street through Ginza from the Hibiya intersection at the corner of the present Imperial Palace. The last street-level Sukiyabashi was the arch stone bridge built in 1929 to replace the bridge that was damaged in the 1923 earthquake.

Kimi no na wa

The arch bridge was the setting for a budding romance in the 1952 radio drama "Kimi no na wa". The drama builds when a man and a woman meet on the bridge after an air raid, and agree to meet there again half a year later -- by which time fate has made their reunion unlikely. A movie came out in 1954, and every ten years or so one TV network or another pairs the couple of the decade in a nostalgic remake.

In 1959, the bridge was taken down, and the moat was filled, to build the Tokyo Expressway over where the moat had been. The expressway, most of which is elevated, was finished in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The overpass on the Tokyo Expressway, where it crosses Harumi-dori, is called Sukiyabashi. Sukiyabashi is also the name of the interesection on the Ginza side of Harumi-dori -- the first one reaches after walking under the overpass toward Ginza from Hibiya.

Sukiyabashi park

Between the overpass and the interesection, on the right side of the street, is a small patch of green called Sukiyabashi Koen. Leading off Harumi-dori, along the side of the park nearer the intersection, is a narrow side street called Sukiybashi-dori. The park takes barely a minute to walk around.

The main attraction of the park, other than a few willow trees, birds, and bird watchers, is a stone marker with the following inscription by Kikuta Kazuo (1908-1972), who wrote "Kimi no na wa" and composed the lyrics for the theme songs (my transliteration and translation).

数寄屋橋 Sukiyabashi Sukiya bridge
此処に koko ni was
ありき ariki here
    菊田一夫    Kikuta Kazuo    Kikuta Kazuo

Other Yoshitoshi firefighter prints

Yoshitoshi, like most drawers, drew a number of firefighter prints during this lifetime. Most prints did not show fires, but firefighters -- not fighting fires, but displaying their pride in gear and brigade.

Firefighters, and their acrobatic performances on high ladders, were major attractions at festivals. Prints showing firefighters as they would dress and act, particularly at festivals, were sold as souvenirs. Prints of the most fabled brigades were as popular as those of the most famous actors, sumo wrestlers, warriers, desperadoes, beauties, and catfish.

Edo no hana okina asobi no zu (1858)
Copped and cropped from Tokyo Fire Museum
Series: Edo no hana okina asobi no zu 江戸乃花子供遊乃圖
Date: 午十 (Ansei 5-10) (c1858-11)
Publisher: Kadokane 角金 [Reading unconfirmed]
Drawer: Yoshitoshi 芳年
Carver: Unconfirmed
Size: Three verticle oban
Images: Tokyo Fire Museum, Hokuritsu Construction Association

Edo no hana okina asobi no zu

Yoshitoshi's 1858 "Edo no hana okina asobi no zu" triptych is a well-known example. It is shown in van den Ing and Schaap in conjuction with YSH-1155 -- as a "diptych (1859) which shows more fire brigades with their standards during the annual New Year's celebrations" (1992: 51). Apparently the print is described this way because the middle sheet is missing, and the right margin of the first (right) sheet, on which the seal indicating the year and month of approval was impressed, appears to have been trimmed away.

About this time -- between Ansei 5 and 6 (circa 1858-1859) -- Yoshitora (?-c1880), another Kuniyoshi disciple, was cranking out an entire set of 64 numbered single-sheet chuhan (about B5) size prints called "Edo no hana kodomo asobi" (江戸之花子供遊). All the prints were published in 1995 by Iwabi Bijutsi (Shisuimachi, Chiba), in a single volume edited by Yamaguchi Masagoro, who has authored other material on the history of firefighting.

Yoshitora's prints are referred to as "The 64 brigades of Edo firefighters" (江戸町火消六十四組 Edo machibikeshi rokujuyon-gumi). Each brigade is represented by a single print showing one of its firefighters (machibikeshi) striking a courageous pose while holding his brigade standard (matoi).

In 1860, Yoshitsuya (1822-1866) drew a very similar but much simpler and less dynamic triptych, with a similar title (江戸ノ花子供遊の図 Edo no hana kodomo asobi no zu).

Edo no hana kodomo asobi

Many firefighter prints have titles like "Edo no hana kodomo [okina] asobi" -- a common name for drawings of firemen posing, parading, or performing -- proud of the distinctive unit markings on their clothing, gear, and brigade standards (matoi).

Edo no hana

"Great Fire of Meireki" (明暦の大火 Meireki no Taika) is the name given to a fire that raged through Edo for three days during the 1st month of the 3rd year of the Meireki period (circa late February 1657). The fire destroyed much of city, even a few outer buildings of Edo castle, and killed about 100,000 people, about one-fourth of the population. (Kojien)

Meireki is the reign name for the first part (1655-1658) of the reign (1654-1663) of Emperior Gosai (1637-1685). As was usual after a major calamity, the reign name was changed in hopes of better fortune.

After the Meireki fire, Edo fires were called "Edo no hana" (江戸の華、江戸の花) -- which could also allude to a large street fight or riot (喧嘩 kenka).

Kodomo asobi

Because government officials would not approve printed matter with words like fire, earthquake, or flood in their titles, publishers referred to such events in titles of woodblock prints related to firefighting as "child's play" (kodomo asobi) -- which, on prints for children, meant what it said.

The 子供遊 in the title of Yoshitoshi's triptych is marked to be read not "kodomo asobi" but "okina asobi" (翁遊), meaning the play of older men.

Ma fire-prevention brigade
Copped and cropped from Segi 1985
Signature: Ōju Yoshitoshi kaki 応需 芳年書き
[Drawn by Yoshitoshi in accordance with request]
Size: Undetermined, original framed
Date: Meiji 12 (1879) [Received]
Images: Segi 1978, Segi 1985

Ma brigade votive painting

In 1879, Yoshitoshi was commissioned to draw and paint a picture, on a cherrywood panel, showing the "Ma-gumi fire-prevention brigade" (ま組消防隊 Ma-gumi shōbōtai). The painted board -- a type of "ema" (絵馬) or votive plaque, which originally pictured a horse, hence its name -- was then framed and mounted at the Hikawa Jinja in Akasaka.

The Ma-brigade painting is one of three known Yoshitoshi ema, and is said to resemble Kuniyoshi's "Chi-gumi fire-prevention brigade" (千組消防隊) at Narita-san Shinzenji.

The wood is flecked with gold dust -- not vestiges of gold leaf that has peeled off, but gold dust used to suggest flames (Segi 1978: 96-97, 114, 138, No. 191; Segi). An English version says "sparks" (Segi 1985: 120-121, 149).

Segi 1978 shows the Ma-brigade ema in its natural environment, a testimony to its true purpose -- not a work to be admired for its own sake, but a commodity framed and mounted in a shrine to perform a continuing spiritual function.

The image shown here is scanned from Segi 1985 (pages 120-121) -- which shows only the painting, and otherwise gives no clue to its habitat and utility. I would rather have scanned Segi 1978, but Segi 1985 submits better to the bed of my scanner.

Moon in smoke
One hundred figures of moon
Copped and cropped from Hotei
Series: Tsuki hyakushi 月百姿
Title: Enchū no tsuki 烟中月
Date: Meiji 19-2 (1886-2)
Publisher: Akiyama Buzaemon 秋山武右衛門
Drawer: Tsukioka Yonejiro 月岡米次郎
Signed: Yoshitoshi 芳年
Carver: Yamamoto 山本
Size: Three oban
Images: Waseda (Tsubouchi), Hotei

Moon through smoke

From 1885 and until his death in 1892, Yoshitoshi drew his best known series -- Tsuki hyakushi (月百姿) -- "One-hundred figures of the moon" -- usually (stiffly) rendered "One hundred aspects of the moon" -- less commonly (better but more loosely) "One hundred views of the moon".

"Moon in smoke" undoubtedly shares many features with the Sukiyacho fire triptych, as Keyes and others have pointed out (Keyes 1980, Keyes 1982, van den Ing and Schaap 1992), which in turn has much in common with an 1859 tiptych of fire brigades celebrating the new year The two works obviously share many features.

The fireman in "Moon in smoke" is carrying a "standard" (纏 matoi) on top of which is a "sign" (陀志 dashi). The sign consists of a "mustard seed" (芥子 keshi) and a "measure box" (枡 masu), and it signifies the "I [read "E"] company" (い組), according to the script on the back of firefighter's hood or cowl.

The character for "standard" (纏 matoi) on the back of the fireman's coat identifies him as the "standard bearer" (纏持ち matoimochi) whose job is to show his company's position.

Edo firefighters

Edo's 64 fire brigades included the "Iroha 48 brigades" and the "Fukagawa 16 brigades".

The Iroha brigades consisted of nine groups (1-10 bangumi, no 4-bangumi) totalling 48 brigades (44 hiragana kumi, plus 本, 百, 千, and 万 kumi). The Fukagawa brigades consisted of three groups (South, Central, North) totalling 16 brigades (1 through 16 kumi, including 4-kumi).

The Iroha brigades were set up during the 3rd year of Kyōho (享保) -- circa 1718 -- by Ōoka Tadasuke (大岡忠相 1677-1752), a samurai in the service of the Tokugawa shogunate, better known as Ōoka Echizen no Kami (大岡越前守) from his title as Governor of Echizen. As the magistrate (町奉行 machibugyō) of South district of Edo (the others were Central and North), Ooka enforced the law in the district, but also oversaw other aspects of public safety, including fire prevention. It was in his capacity as a fire marshall that he established Edo's first fire brigades made up of commoners.


"Iroha" refers to a poem that uses all the morae (loosely but incorrectly called "syllables") of the Japanese language, each one time. The original set ("syllabary") consisted of 47 morae (loosely called "syllables") -- created before the innovation of the graph for moraic "n".

The poem is written as four 7 / 5 mora couplets.

 Hiragana  Literal transliteration  Present-day romanization
いろはにほへと   ちりぬるを iro ha nihoheto / chirinuru wo iro wa nioedo / chirinuru o
わかよたれそ   つねならむ waka yo tare so / tsunenaramu waga yo tare / zo tsunenaran
うゐのおくやま   けふこえて uwi no okuyama / kefu koete ui no okuyama / kyou koete
あさきゆめみし   ゑひもせす asaki yume mishi / wehi mo sesu asaki yume miji / ei mo sezu

Transliterated according to present-day orthography -- which reflects moraic changes, voicing, and romanization conventions -- the poem would read -- and structurally translate -- like this. My translation is inspired by B. H. Chamberlain's translation, as cited in Roy Andrew Miller, The Japanese Language, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967, Second Impression, 1970, page 127.

 Kanji-kana version  Structural translation
色は匂へど   散りぬるを [their] colors though reddish / [they] fall and scatter
わが世誰そ   常ならむ who in our world / will always be [here]?
有為の奥山   今日越えて crossing today / the deep mountains of being
浅き夢見じ   酔ひもせず [I] will not see shallow dreams / nor will [I] get intoxicated

Stigmatized morae and number not used

At the time the brigades were named, there were 48 morae, hence 48 kana -- those of the original Iroha poem plus "n" (ん). The poem today is sometimes written with "n" (ん) instead of "mu" (む) -- which leaves "mu" (む) without representation.

When naming the brigades, four of the 48 morae -- he, ra, hi, and n -- were replaced by "original, principal" (本 hon), "hundred" (百 hyaku), "thousand" (千 sen), and "ten-thousand" (萬 / 万 man).

There was no "he" (へ) because it can mean "fart" (屁); no "ra" (ら) because it was cant for something detested and shunned, something which lacks refinement, and may also refer to a penis; no "hi" (ひ) because it can mean "fire" (火); and no "n" (ん) because it lacks euphony, besides which it is not ordinary used by itself but only with, and following, another mora.

Presumably "four" (四 shi) was not used as a group name because it is homophonic with "death" (死 shi) -- and hence "四番組" (shi-bangumi) would have suggested "death group". Yet there was a "4th brigade" (四組), possibly because it was pronounced "yongumi". All this is speculation.