Fire Museum, Yotsuya, Tokyo 消防博物館, 四谷, 東京
Tokyo's Fire Museum, dedicated to the history of fire-fighting in the city, is housed in the fortress-like Yotsuya Fire Station in Shinjuku Ward. The museum offers a vivid introduction to both past and current fire-fighting efforts. Admission is free and most exhibits come with English-language explanations.
The Fire Museum can be entered on its basement floor straight from Exit 2 of Yotsuya-sanchome Station on the Marunouchi Subway Line.
Entering on the basement level, you walk right into the museum's collection of vintage fire engines, many of them dating back to the 1920's. All of them were in service in Tokyo in their time though they are mostly of foreign origin, imported from the U.S., France and Germany.
The museum's lobby on street level greets visitors with a French-made fire-fighter helicopter from the 1960's, in service in Tokyo until the early 1980's.
The historical exhibitions are arranged in chronological order, starting on the 5th floor. Take the elevator up, then continue down the stairway.
The 5th floor introduces the beginnings of organized fire-fighting in the 17th century, during the Edo Period.
Edo, as Tokyo was called then, was a city built almost entirely of wood. In the downtown areas, streets were narrow, the structures densely clustered. All cooking, all heating, all lighting was done using more or less open fire. A small mistake in handling a candle alone could destroy whole neighborhoods. It happened frequently.
While in the early days, the neighborhoods would put up their own efforts, in the early 17th century the Tokugawa Shogunate introduced a centralized system, centering on local fire / police stations called jishinban that served to combat both fire and crime.
In the event of a fire, a fire-fighter squad made up of samurai would be dispatched to the afflicted area. Their job was however not to extinguish the blaze but to prevent its spreading. Depending on wind direction and local geography, the samurai leading the squad would decide which houses had to be torn down to keep the fire in as small a locality as possible. People fleeing the afflicted area were strictly prohibited to take any personal belongings with them as that would hamper the fire-fighting effort.
Tough measures and not always successful but the brave hikeshi, as firemen were called back then, did the best they could.
The exhibits on the 5th floor include scale models of such fire-fighting work in progress, replicas of fire fig hers' uniforms of the time and plenty of pictorial material, including woodblock prints by ukiyo-e master Hiroshige Utagawa (1797-1858). Hiroshige had first-hand experience on what he depicted - he worked for many years as a town official and active fire-fighter.
On the 5th floor, you can also enter the rooftop. An actual fire-fighter helicopter, built in France in the 1960's and in service in Tokyo until the 1980's, is on display outside. The helicopter can be entered, offering a unique perspective of the city from the pilot's seat.
This applied also to fire-fighting. Western-style fire engines (first horse powered, then motorized) came into service as well as modern water pump systems, fire alarms and so on.
Picture material in this section includes photos of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and the Shirokiya department store fire in 1932.
The museum doesn't mention it but the Shirokiya fire is said to have had a profound effect on female fashion in Japan. According to news reports covering the fire, sales ladies dressed in kimono refused to jump into the safety nets unfolded by firemen. Ladies wore no undergarments under their kimono at the time and therefore, the sales ladies were terribly afraid of exposing their privates to the public (and the photographers). They would rather die - and they did, the papers wrote.
Western-style underwear became the norm in Japan after the Shirokiya fire - no matter if the initial press reports were based on fact or not. The reports alone changed public attitudes.
Almost no space is given to the extreme destruction through the American fire-bombing campaigns during World War II. But those were deliberately aimed at and succeeded in overwhelming any fire-fighting capacities and can thus not be regarded as belonging into the same category as the accidental blazes or natural disasters the Tokyo Fire Department was designed to handle.
The 3rd floor features the development of current fire protection and fire-fighting from post-World War II years up to today.
The 2nd floor of the building is not part of the museum and off-limits to visitors. It houses the offices of today's Yotsuya Fire Station.
An elevator ride up to the 10th floor, the top floor of the building, leads to the Observation Deck. It is, in fact a room equipped with drink vending machines, tables and chairs. Eating is permitted here. The 10th floor glass fronts offer good views over central Tokyo, especially towards the Shinjuku skyline and, on the opposite side, the Tokyo Skytree.
Fire Museum Tokyo Hours
Tuesday to Sunday from 9.30am to 5pm, closed on Mondays (unless Monday is a national holiday in which case the museum is closed the following day) and over the New Year period (December 28th to January 4th). Check the Fire Museum's website for further details.
3-10 Yotsuya, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 101-8301
Tel: 03 3353 9119
The Marunouchi Subway Line of Tokyo metro to Yotsuya-sanchome Station. Exit 2 of the station leads right to the basement level entrance of the museum.