Conflag Hag – How Fires Shaped the Face of Edo and Tokyo

(I thought of the title all by myself)

Conflag being my abbreviation for the word conflagration.

And how the hell do you say conflagration in Japanese?
Well, I’m glad you asked.
In Japanese the word is 大火 taika (big ass fire).
The word used for smaller fires is 火事 kaji (fire situation/trouble).
火 hi (fire) refers to fire in general.

The traditional architecture of Japan has always been wooden. Wooden houses, wooden temples and shrines, even wooden castles. When you have entire cities built of wood, you can imagine that even a little carelessness with a flame could have dire consequences. “Old Japan” had a fuckload of fires and Edo, being the biggest and most populated city, was no exception.

After each conflagration the city of Edo would have to be rebuilt. In the modern era, two major conflagrations have occurred in Tokyo. Each time the city was rebuilt. All the destruction and rebuilding is part of the reason modern Tokyo looks very little like “Old Japan.” If you visit Kyoto, you’ll notice how different it is from Tokyo.
That’s because Kyoto hasn’t experienced any major fires in the modern era.

Knock on wood.

fires in tokyo
chaos everywhere! note the fire brigade standing on the tops of the buildings. (meireki fire)

The 3 Great Fires of Edo

Edo had many conflagrations, but there are three that are considered the big ones, the so-called 江戸三大大火 Edo san dai taika (the 3 Great Fires of Edo).

fire in tokyo edo

1 – 明暦ノ大火 Meireki no Taika (Meireki Conflag)

If I’m not mistaken, this was the worst fire in Edo – and one of the worst disasters in Japanese history.
70% of the city was burnt to the ground.
Somewhere around 107,000 people were killed. Dogs and cats living together… you get the picture.

The city burned for 3 days because the flames were stoked by strong typhoon winds. The flames somehow “jumped the moat” of Edo Castle and burned a shitload of the outer buildings of the castle and all of the daimyo and high ranking samurai residences near the castle. Most Japanese castles have a large castle keep called a 天守閣 tenshukaku which would loom over the castle towns, but Edo Castle’s keep was destroyed in this fire. It was never rebuilt, but if you go to the Imperial Palace today, you can see the stone base of the tenshukaku.

the tenshukaku of edo castle as it looks today (tokyo imperial palace)
the tenshukaku of edo castle as it looks today (tokyo imperial palace)

2 – 明和ノ大火 Meiwa no Taika (Meiwa Conflag)

The names of these fires are derived from the 年号nengō, (Era Names). The Meiwa Era was, as eras go, pretty much a shit era. It began in 1764 and ended in 1772… a year so shitty in fact that the imperial court decided to change era names. But no dice. The next era was just as shitty.
Anyways, this fire pretty much sucked giant donkey balls. About 15,000 people perished. The cost of rebuilding Edo put a massive economic strain on the shōgunate.

meiwa fire
the meiwa fire

3 – 文化ノ大火 Bunka no Taika (Bunka Conflag)

I don’t know much about this fire, but from what I’ve read, it mostly just affected the elite of Edo. There are other fires not included in the Big Three list that had higher death tolls, but the elite wrote the history books, so… take that, stupid commoners.

fire in tokyo edo

4 – That Crazy Bitch’s Fire

There’s another very famous fire called 八百屋お七の火事 Yaoya O-shichi no Kaji (Yaoya O-Shichi’s Fire). This fire has been preserved in kabuki theater because of the tragic drama of the story, which goes a little something like this:

Once upon a time, there was a crazy bitch named O-shichi. During a major conflagration in 1682, she saw a good looking dude. She fell in love with him on the spot, as crazy bitches do. So a year later she got this fucking awesome idea that if she started another fire, she could meet him again. (Because just going to the place where he worked would be too commonsensical).

So she starts a fire – in Edo, which is still recovering from the last major fire.

Anyhoo, the bitch get caught and handed over to the local judge.
In the Edo Period, age 16 was considered an adult, under age 16, a minor.
As a minor, she would get a slap on the wrist and sent home to mommy and daddy.
As an adult, she would be burned at the stake.

The magistrate decided to give the girl a break — because obviously she was a fucking idiot and couldn’t even get a good fire going.
So he was all like, “You’re 15, right? Wink wink, nudge nudge.”
And she was all like, “Naw, I’m 16.”
He gave her another chance.
He was all like, “You are 15, right? Wink wink, nudge nudge.”
And she was all like, “Naw, I’m 16.”
And she was too fucking stupid to figure out what the judge was doing.

So he was all like, “Fuck it. Sometimes you just gotta burn a bitch.” And they burned her alive at the stake.

The official name of the major conflagration is 天和ノ大火 Ten’na no Taika, in keeping with the Era name and O-shichi’s fire was a separate incident, but since they happened in the same era, her fire is also called Ten’na no Taika. But here at Japan This!, we call it like it is: That crazy bitch’s fire.

crazy ass bitch
bitch you crazy!

5 – Conflagrations in the Modern City

After Edo was renamed Tokyo and Japan moved into the so-called “modern era,” there have been two major conflags in the big city.

The first disaster happened on September 1, 1923. The 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai (the Great Kantō Earthquake) rocked the region. The earthquake caused a lot of damage, as you can imagine. But the earthquake occurred at lunch time. People had fires in their homes for cooking and… well, fires and collapsing wooden buildings are a recipe for disaster. But as if that shit wasn’t sucky enough, a typhoon was rolling into Tokyo Bay at the same time and the strong winds created firestorms. Most of the Tokyo was leveled and burnt to the ground. About 105,385 people died, mostly in the fire. To make matters worse, there were some vigilante groups going around killing foreigners (in particular ethnic Koreans). Very nasty stuff, indeed.

On the bright side, Earthquake preparedness became a priority of the government. Since the 60’s September 1st has been Earthquake Preparedness Day. The city rebuilt, of course, encouraging non-wooden materials when possible.

So everything was fine and dandy until a little squabble known as WWII. The Americans firebombed the shit out of the city, destroying about 50% or more of the city and killing hundreds of thousands. The bombing again caused firestorms that ripped through the city. The number of deaths is usually quoted as 100,000 – but the number is debated by some historians who say this number is too low.
Anyways, a veritable fuckload of people died and the pictures aren’t pretty.

holy shit!
aerial view of one raid on tokyo

6 – After the Firebombing 

What sucks for me is that this was the final loss of “Edo.” In the post-war recovery, the city was heavily modernized across the board. The symbol of Edo, Edo Castle, was all but destroyed. If you go to the Imperial Palace today, you’ll see only a few remnants of what was the biggest and most luxurious castle in the country. The Imperial Family (read: “squatters”) never restored the castle to its former glory.

Very sad indeed.

fire is bad
fire is bad, mkay?

9 thoughts on “Conflag Hag – How Fires Shaped the Face of Edo and Tokyo

  1. Yeah, that was a pretty funny way to talk about thousands of deaths by fire.

    I guess all cities change, especially wooden cities!

      1. Actually, yes!

        Occasionally you’ll come across individual buildings, usually temples or shrines, that were spared the disaster. A few gardens such as Koishikawa Korakuen and Rikugien supposedly made it to the modern era unscathed.

        Shitaya and Negishi in Taito-ku supposedly were miraculously unharmed during the firebombing in WWII and received only minimal damage during the conflagration that followed the Great Kanto Earfquake. But I haven’t been to these places myself.

        In the introduction to “Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology,” Jin’nai Hidenobu says Tokyo is an anomaly among the capitals of the world because although it’s a very old city, it’s difficult to find buildings that are even 100 years old.

  2. Bitch, you crazy!!

    I’m taking a survey course on Japanese history right not for my Asian Studies major. I wish my professor was as entertaining as this blog. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed once in the class.

    I cried once when I got a test returned to me. But I never laughed.

  3. Thanks for reading and commenting! (And nice username!)

    Glad to hear you enjoy the blog.

    You can always send a link to your professor and ask him to change his teaching style, lol.

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