Transformative Protection: A Japanese Fire-Breathing Fireman’s Cape

Museum Visit: Musée des Confluences, Lyon (France)
Exposition: « Esprits du Japon : Charles Fréger et la collection japonaise du musée des
Confluences » (“Spirits of Japan: Charles Fréger and the Japanese collection of the
Confluences Museum”)

“We are surrounded by natural forces and divinities. In Japanese masked rituals, costumes are worn to transform the wearer into a god, demon or animal. The exhibition creates links between the contemporary photographs of Charles Fréger, which depict a large number of ritual masked figures, and the museum’s Japanese collections.” – Exhibition website, Musée des Confluences

I’d visited Lyon half a dozen times already in just four years. By pure chance, my first visit included an AirBnB stay with a local with whom I found much in common. We became friends almost immediately. I have returned to stay at his apartment at his invitation several times since, and before long I met and befriended several of his pals. When my Lyonnais buddies learned I was returning yet again this summer for my birthday – and that my birthday happened to be July 13th, the day before Bastille Day, le quatorze juillet—they insisted on taking me out to a ball. The Firemen’s Ball, that is: a wild annual tradition held in various cities across France on the eve before the national holiday. So perhaps I had this party in mind when, on the day before my birthday, I encountered this wildly extravagant fireman’s cape among the many Japanese artifacts on display at the “Spirits of Japan” exhibition at the new Confluences Museum—so named for its location at the tip of the city peninsula where the Saône and the Rhône rivers converge. The museum itself would be classified as an anthropological institution, but exhibitions here mix cultural artifacts with contemporary art and present them with current relevance. Convergence

Art museums are a familiar refuge of mine, and perhaps I succumb to occasional observational complacency (ennui) now and then with the constant repetition of painting- sculpture-another painting content of many. The content of this exhibition was refreshing, indeed: glass cases displayed a myriad mix of prints, statuettes, altar boxes, costumes, etc. while the walls displayed larger-than-life photographs of rural Japanese ritual costumes by Charles Fréger. In the center of the exhibition hall stood a bright red gabled structure, like a Japanese gazebo, with bench seating for visitors to listen to an audio presentation within. Within each aisle of display cases, signs explained (in French, mostly) the cultural context of each collection with depth and clarity such that the objects at hand became familiar. Then I came upon this dazzling item and was transfixed, staring long at this extravagant piece set alone in a case at the end of a row, with only this museum card:

« Cape de pompier/Japon/Époque Edo (1603-1868)/Textile, verre, argent/Collection privée »

(“Fireman’s cape/Japan/Edo Period (1603-1868)/Textile, glass, silver/Private collection”)

The glass case allowed for viewing on three sides. I took photographs from several angles, then jotted down a couple light sketches to get the basic pattern to sink into my mind’s eye. The pattern on this cape was nothing less than extraordinary, particularly for the intricate (and, undoubtedly, labor-intensive) embroidery in shimmering gold and bronze colors set on a tan background, punctuated by lines of bright red. Besides being a piece constructed with remarkable craftsmanship and beauty, I knew I was looking at an assortment of symbolic motifs here. Deciphering these would require some research beyond what my Western eye could interpret.

Cape de pompier (full display case view)

One pattern that emerged right away was the precise symmetrical composition of the figures and patterns. Three boxes across the top of the cloak repeat “fire” (which I recognized from previous studies in Mandarin, 火) rendered in thick edomoji style calligraphy. This bold kanji style has a visual effect of a shout, a natural response to a fire emergency. Across the center below the three kanji are three komainu (guardian lion-dog figures), with one large central disembodied face with fangs and big glass eyes staring straight at the viewer and two smaller heads in profile on either side. Triads are further repeated as dozens of geometric forms overlap in tight formation across the middle and in the corners. While the number 3 is often associated with the Holy Trinity in western culture, I couldn’t easily make an interpretation here. Judging by their geometric styling, perhaps these are yagō – symbolic representations of the household for which this cape was commissioned to protect.

Cape de pompierkomainu (detail)

A full-bodied pair of komainu dominate the lower half of the cloak. Also known as shishi “dogs”—or shisa “lions” in Okinawa, where they are ubiquitous—these are most familiar to me represented as pairs (I have a pair of small ceramic figurines I bought in Naha years ago), such as these two spiraled figures here, looking up at the large center face above. Their shimmering coats sparkle in swirls of tightly-stitched beads (?) and their metal fangs and claws appear razor-sharp. The intensity of the eyes’ gaze is accentuated by the reflective glass that covers them. Bright red “flames” burst up from their bodies in branches outlined in gold. Like the three komainu heads in the upper half of the cloak, these beasts are rendered in meticulous metallic stitching patterns in flame-like waves, swirls, and circles that are awe-inspiring for their beauty if not for the apparent investment of labor and skill required to render them. 

Speculation on my part for lack of clarity comes in regard to the embroidery itself. The museum card here, as it turned out, was maddeningly brief. The use of glass and silver (as the card listed) is obvious: glass pieces cover the eyes on the komainu, as mentioned above, and their silver teeth and claws are easy to point out. But the card makes no mention of gold, which seems to be a dominate medium here. At first glance, the cloak’s surface seems to be covered in thousands of tiny beads—but the museum card didn’t offer any clues. Neither did blow-ups of my photos, unfortunately. Perhaps, I thought, a little research would provide insight but the embroidery technique here is difficult to identify. Examples found in the course of my investigation suggest these are most likely either metal foil wrapped threads or coiled bullion. Gold is used in the process in both cases. Either way, the effect is the same. This is nothing less than a masterpiece of spectacular embroidery, rendering delightful figures and patterns in rich metal, punctuated with vivid red lines. But one more item on the museum card perplexed me: textile.

The cloak itself looks like suede, with its light tan color and napped surface. But rather than a woven cotton fabric typically used for firemen’s’ coats in Japan, this one is made from wool. Therein lies two clues as to the origin of this particular cloak. While the middle-class merchants and lower-class commoners of Edo society each maintained their own fire brigades (hikeshi), the elite Samurai brigades (jobikeshi) had exclusive access to the restricted European wool imports, using the material for their military uniforms. Also, as these cloaks were soaked in water prior to being attached to protective helmets on the way to responding to a blaze, this cloak would have been rather heavy. The physical discipline of the samurai class would have provided the inherent strength required to bear the weight of these wet woolens. 

Another feature of this cape that seemed curious: its condition. The apparent lack of abrasions, tears, and smoke or water stains seemed to contradict the museum label affirming this as a piece of firefighting equipment. As frequent as fires were in Edo during the Tokugawa Period, the lavish investment of luxury material and skilled labor into a cloak that would be the singular barrier between inferno and flesh seemed surprisingly extravagant. As sumptuary ordinances of the period restricted heavy ornamentation (like this exquisitely embroidered surface) to the elite classes, perhaps the elite used the opportunity to appeal to divinities and demons that embodied fires. More extravagance, perhaps, would ensure better protection against catastrophe. And as the noble houses would commission fire brigade uniforms to all male household members, this cloak was most likely never used.

This fireman’s cape, then, stands out as an outstanding example of the craftsmanship and artistry that exemplifies the particular relationship Japanese people have with natural elements. Their profound awareness of the often-chaotic environment surrounding them is represented with a multitude of symbolic articles and rituals meant to render meaning, if not some understanding, of the relationship between man and nature. To don a simple cape in the face of a deadly fire would be insulting to the fire deities, thus risking certain death in the face of such catastrophe. Beauty – and art—are divine gifts that must be shared to ensure harmony.

A Footnote: The Firemen’s Ball was quite the spectacle. A large warehouse was converted into a dance club for the night, with a second dance area set up outdoors in back. Uniformed firemen from neighborhood brigades across the city volunteered services for setup, coat check, bartending, etc. By “etc.” I mean a group of them provided entertainment in the form of an adorably awkward amateur striptease act. All proceeds went to charity, naturally. The squads were having as much fun as the attendees who never wavered in their admiration of these heroes of society.

“Costumes are worn to transform the wearer into a god” …and the gods were among us for a night of dance and celebration!

References 

“Conservation of an Edo Fire Fighting Cape: Costume and Class in Early Modern Japan.” Textile Conservation, 24 May 2016, textileconservation.academicblogs.co.uk/conservation-of-an-edo-fire-fighting-cape-costume-and-class-in-early-modern-japan/. 

“Fires in Edo.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Jul. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fires_in_Edo. 

“Vintage Japanese Fireman’s Coat | Hikeshibanten | Cotton Hanten | Showa Period | Mingei Arts.” Japanese Antiques Sellers and Evaluators, mingeiarts.com/archive/vintage-japanese-firemans-coat-hikeshibanten-cotton-hanten-showa-period/. 

Willem. “Bullion.” Welcome to the Textile Research Centre, trc-leiden.nl/trc-needles/materials/metal-threads/bullion. 

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