The Great Fire of Meireki (1/2)The biggest fire in the Edo period

Great Fire of Meireki

Great Fire of Meireki

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The Great Fire of Meireki (1657)
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Edo castle

Edo castle

Fires broke out frequently in the city of Edo, so much so that it was said that "fires and fights are the flowers of Edo." Large-scale fires also occurred frequently, but the largest known fire in the Edo period was the Meireki Fire, which occurred in January of Meireki 3 (1657). The fire burned down more than 60% of the city, including the inner citadel of Edo Castle, and drastically changed the appearance of the city of Edo. In this article, we will provide an easy-to-understand explanation of the Meireki Fire.

The era of Shogun Ietsuna when the Great Meireki Fire occurred

The Meireki Fire is known as the largest of the three great fires of Edo. Also known by other names such as the Furisode Fire and the Maruyama Fire, this was the largest fire in Japanese history and occurred during the reign of the fourth shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna.

About 50 years after the Edo Shogunate was established, Edo had grown into a large city with an estimated population of 280,000 townspeople alone, and just under 700,000 people including samurai. However, fires occurred frequently in Edo, especially in the winter.

First of all, why did Edo have so many fires? One possible reason is that most of the buildings in Edo were made of wood, and the roofs were thatched or shingled, which were highly flammable. The high population density meant that buildings were packed together, which was one of the reasons why fires spread easily.

Additionally, meteorological factors such as long periods of sunny weather and dry winters, as well as cold seasonal northwesterly winds, were also major contributing factors.

Firefighting at that time was mainly carried out by a system called "daimyo firefighters," where daimyo were in charge of extinguishing fires. Initially, 16 daimyo and 4 groups (up to 420 people per group) were assigned to fight fires in 10-day shifts, but within a year this was changed to 10 daimyo and 3 groups.

On the other hand, how did townspeople prepare for fires? They patrolled the streets, kept water in buckets and pails, prepared wells for firefighting, etc. The Edo Shogunate issued a town order requiring everyone to rush together to extinguish the fire in the event of a fire.

In the Edo period, firefighting was not done with water, but rather by destroying houses near the source of the fire to stop it from spreading.

The Great Fire of Meireki Part 1: When and where did it occur? What was the extent of the damage and how many people died?

The Great Fire of Meireki refers to three fires that occurred between January 18th and 20th in the third year of the Meireki era (1657). At the time, there had been no rain for over 80 days, and the air was dry. As a result, the fires spread one after another due to seasonal winds, and about 60% of the urban area of Edo was burned down by the three fires. It is said that the death toll from the three fires combined was between 30,000 and 100,000 people, and in addition to those who were burned to death, some people drowned in rivers trying to escape the fires, froze to death in the cold, and were crushed to death by roof tiles.

In addition, the death toll increased dramatically due to traffic jams caused by people trying to carry out their belongings in "kurumanagamochi" (carts with wheels on the bottom). After the Great Fire of Meireki, the use of "kurumanagamochi" was banned and the roads were widened.

The Great Fire of Meireki 2. The first fire that occurred at Honmyoji Temple

From here on, we will be looking at the story "Musashi Abumi," written by Asai Ryōi in 1661, which is known as a reference source for the Meireki fire.

The first fire broke out around 1pm on January 18th at Honmyo-ji Temple in Hongo-Maruyama (now Hongo, Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo). It spread due to northwesterly winds, spreading to Kanda, Asakusa, Nihonbashi, Kodenmacho, Reiganjima, Tsukudajima, and Ishikawajima. Higashi Hongan-ji Temple in Kanda and Nishi Hongan-ji Temple in Nihonbashi were burned down during this time. Motoyoshiwara was also in Nihonbashi, but it was completely burned down. 23,000 people died in the Asakusabashi Gate area alone. The fire was extinguished around 2pm on January 19th.

The first known episode of the fire is the "cutting free" of prisoners at the Denmacho Prison. When a fire was approaching the prison, Ishide Tatewaki, who served as the prison magistrate, temporarily released the prisoners to prevent them from being burned to death. He made them promise to "return to Renkei-ji Temple in Shitaya once the fire had subsided," and said that if they kept their promise, their lives would be spared, but if they did not, he would track them down and capture them, and punish their families and retainers. As a result, almost all of the prisoners kept their promise and returned to Renkei-ji Temple, and those who returned were not punished but had their sentences reduced (although there is also a theory that all of them returned).

Meireki Fire 3: The tower and main enclosure of Edo Castle are burned down!

The second fire broke out at the residence of the Oban (Edo's security guard) in Koishikawa Shintakajo-cho (Kasuga, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo). The fire broke out around 11:00 on January 19th, and was spread by the northwest wind one after another. Hundreds of samurai residences were on fire at the same time, black smoke scorched the sky, and people were stunned by the sight of the tiled roofs collapsing one after another as the sky burned.

The flames of this fire also attacked Edo Castle. The fire spread and burned down the castle tower, Honmaru, Ninomaru, and Sannomaru. The Shogun, who was in the Honmaru of Edo Castle, was safe because he had evacuated to Nishinomaru.

The fire then spread to the Kyobashi area and was contained around 6:00 p.m. on January 19. The fire claimed the lives of over 26,000 people in the Kyobashi area alone.

The third fire broke out at around 4pm on January 19th in a townhouse in Kojimachi (Kojimachi, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo). It burned down feudal lord and samurai residences around Sakuradamon Gate. The fire spread to the beaches of Teppozu and Shiba due to western winds, but the fire stopped burning at around 8am on January 20th, bringing the Great Meireki Fire to an end.

The Great Fire of Meireki 4. Was the cause of the fire a furisode? The origin of the "furisode fire"

A famous legend surrounding the Great Fire of Meireki is a love affair that gave the story its name, "Furisode Fire." It all began when Umeno, the only daughter of Enshuya, a pawnbroker in Azabu, fell in love at first sight with a beautiful temple page (or boy who seemed to be a page) she passed on Uenoyama on her way back from visiting her family temple, Honmyoji Temple in Hongo (note: there are various theories about the names of the characters).

Umeno became so lovesick that she became bedridden, and she had a furisode dyed with a pattern of rough seas and chrysanthemums made for her, saying, "If I can't meet him, at least I'll wear the same kimono he wore." However, Umeno's condition worsened and she died. On the day of her funeral, Enshuya put the furisode on Umeno's coffin and placed it in Honmyoji Temple.

At the time, anything that was donated to a temple could be kept by the temple. As a result, the monks of Honmyoji Temple sold the furisode to a second-hand clothing store. The person who bought the furisode was Kino, the daughter of Omatsuya, a paper merchant in Yamashita, Ueno. However, Kino died of an illness one year after Umeno's death, and the furisode was returned to Honmyoji Temple along with her coffin. The furisode was put up for sale again, but a year after that, another girl died and the furisode was returned to Honmyoji Temple once again...the furisode had now become a "cursed furisode."

As a result, the temple's head priest decided to hold a memorial service for the furisode. On January 18, 1657 (Meireki 3), the temple decided to burn the furisode as a memorial service. However, as soon as the furisode was thrown into the fire, a strong wind blew in, sending the burning furisode flying high into the sky. The fire then spread to the main hall of the temple, which was quickly destroyed. The wind caused the fire to spread further and further, igniting a fire that burned down the city of Edo.

Another famous story about a woman involved in a fire is "Oshichi the Grocer," known from kabuki and other plays. It is the story of a woman who sets fire to her own house out of a desire to see a temple page she met there and fell in love with, after taking refuge during a fire. However, this story is unrelated to the Great Fire of Meireki, and is said to have been burned out of her house in the "Great Fire of Tenna" that occurred in December of the second year of Tenna (January 1683). Incidentally, Oshichi's arson was contained in a small fire.

The cause of the Meireki fire was a furisode. In addition to this story, there are various theories about the "cause" of the fire, such as "the fire originally started at the residence of the senior councilor Abe Tadaaki, not Honmyoji Temple, but Honmyoji Temple took responsibility for the fire's origin out of fear that the shogunate would be criticized," or "the shogunate set the fire themselves in order to completely remodel the city of Edo."

The Great Fire of Meireki 5. Shogunate support for victims

The Meireki Fire caused a great deal of damage. The Edo Shogunate immediately began providing relief to the victims and carrying out reconstruction work. The man who spearheaded this effort was Hoshina Masayuki, the first lord of the Mutsu region's Daichi Domain. He was the illegitimate son of the second shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada, and in the third year of the Meireki era, he was a member of the shogunate's cabinet, supporting the fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.

The article on the Meireki fire continues:

Naoko Kurimoto
Writer(Writer)I am a former travel industry magazine reporter. I have loved history, both Japanese and world history, since I was a child. I usually enjoy visiting temples and shrines, especially shrines, and often do ``pilgrimages to sacred places'' themed around historical figures. My favorite military commander is Ishida Mitsunari, my favorite castle is Kumamoto Castle, and my favorite castle ruins is Hagi Castle. My heart flutters when I see the ruins of battle castles and the stone walls of castle ruins.
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