I’ve been living in Tokyo 5 years and I never noticed these guys until this year. But apparently they do this every year. And according to my friend, they’ve been doing it since the Edo Period (1603-1868). (Go figure). On cold winter nights, groups of volunteers walk through the streets of Tokyo chanting and hitting wood blocks. Who are these people and what are they doing? Well, tonight when they came through my neighborhood I recorded them JAPAN THIS! and I will explain what they’re doing.
In the Edo Period all the buildings were built out of wood. The city of Edo was particularly crowded and most people lived in very close quarters. As a result, the city was prone to fires. Since people used fires to stay warm inside their homes, winter was an especially dangerous season. A few glasses of sake and the cozy warmth of a fire would cause many people to fall asleep without extinguishing their fires. In such cases, the house could catch afire while the unwitting inhabitants were sound asleep. In order to prevent such disasters, volunteers and/or commissioned agents would patrol the streets of Edo at night beating wood blocks called hyōshigi (also used in kabuki) to wake people up and remind them to put out their fires.
This practice still exists today in Tokyo. In many neighborhoods throughout the city on cold winter nights you’ll see groups of volunteers banging hyōshigi and chanting. The chant they call out goes as follows:
Beware of Fires!
(beat hyōshigi twice)
Just One Match Can Start a Fire!
(beat hyōshigi twice)
★Click here to hear the recording★
(a note about this recording, the night i decided to record the guy doing rounds in my neighborhood was only using hyōshigi and no chanting. on top of that, he used a different rhythm than i was hoping to share with you. so tomorrow, i’ll try to get another recording – my apologies).
In neighborhoods that still have some really old wooden houses, I can understand why this tradition might still be useful. Many of the old wood house use space heaters, which unattended could spark a fire. I also think you can hear the sounds outside more clearly in a wooden house. But in the modern concrete buildings that make up much of Tokyo these days, you might not ever notice these guys at all. Like I said before, I don’t think I ever noticed them until this winter. Either my ward just started doing it this winter (not likely) or I just never heard them from my apartment (more likely).