Four hundred fires a month is considered a fair average in Tokyo - Japan's sprawling capital of 8 3/4 million (1958 census).
Four hundred fires a month is considered a fair average in Tokyo - Japan's sprawling capital of 8 3/4 million (1958 census). Living mostly in houses of wood and paper, jam-packed especially in the north-western districts of Arakawa, amid factories and workshops handling larger quantities of silk, wood and lacquer, people have become hardened over the centuries to the familiar ever-present threat of a raging conflagration.
Last year, 59 persons were killed and 1,000 injured in 5,152 fires caused mainly by carelessly discarded cigarette ends, hot ash dropped on to tatami mats - the popular floor covering - unattended open fires, exploding oil stoves, and flying sparks from overheated flues.
An army of 8,000 uniformed firemen with some 420 vehicles, spread over 50 fire stations and 145 sub-stations, each with its watch tower, are standing by day and night, ready to rush to the scene of a new outbreak in one of the city's 23 wards. All fire calls go to the fire department's new eight-story headquarters, where an ultra-modern communications system mobilizes the necessary number of appliances in a matter of seconds. It takes about 40 seconds for an emergency call to reach the communications room, 20 seconds to pass it on to the appropriate station. The fire pump is out 15 seconds later and on the spot within two to 10 minutes. Seven fire engines are sent immediately on every first alarm. Fires spread rapidly in Tokyo and the brigades take no chances.
Even such efficiency is often inadequate in view of the fact that an average-size Japanese house may burn down to its foundations in as little as ten minutes. And in many cases firemen, having reached the scene, find that they cannot get at the blase. Traffic-blocked small streets and alleyways bar easy access, many lengths of hoses must be coupled together, and even then fire-fighters are still at the mercy of the local water supply. Mains pressure is low, chiefly in the summer months, and if more than one hydrant is used, the hoses produce a more trickle. Where houses are huddled back to back without static water tanks, and where the water mains, laid long ago, are too small even for today's domestic consumption, a small fire can swiftly turn into a major disaster.
Despite all these handicaps Tokyo's firemen carry on their formidable task with staunch dedication, slip into the "sashiko" - the fire-fighter's outfit - at the sound of the alarm bell and rush to the aid of their fellow-citizens, always prepared to risk their lives to preserve those of many others. A board at headquarters, showing the number of fires in the current month, also proudly displays the number of people rescued from the many blazing homes.
No longer are Tokyo firemen confined to pulling down houses with long, stout poles to create a fire break around the center of the flames, as were their forefathers who fought the "Flowers of Yedo" in the ancient capital. No longer are they pushing and pulling primitive pumps along cart tracks. And well do they know that the number of concrete buildings is growing all the time, while fires are becoming less destructive and do not keep pace in number with the quickly expending population but, all the same, Tokyo's fire statistics remain gruesomely impressive and the Japanese capital still has the dubious distinction of leading the country in the frequency of fire emergencies.