Fireman's Coat (Hikeshibanten)
, 19th century
Painted cotton plain weave with cotton darning stitching (sashiko)
39 3/4 x 46 1/2 inches (101 x 118.1 cm)
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with funds contributed by the Otto Haas Charitable Trust, The Women's Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Maude de Schauensee, Theodore R. and Barbara B. Aronson, Edna and Stanley C. Tuttleman, The Hamilton Family Foundation, and Maxine and Howard H. Lewis, 2000
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About This Coat
This coat was actually worn while firefighting during the Edo
period (1615–1868), in Japan. At that time, the prevalence of wood
architecture and crowded living conditions led to frequent fires.
Coats such as this one provided firefighters with some protection
against the hazards of their occupation.
The coat is made of several layers of thick cotton fabric, quilted
using the sashiko
(sah-shee-koh) technique. The inside of the coat, which you see here, is painted with an elaborate
design. The outside of the coat is quite plain. Firemen wore their
coats plain-side out while fighting a fire. Before entering the scene
of a fire, a firefighter wearing full gear—a coat, hood, pants, and
gloves—soaked himself in water. The thick, water-soaked coat was
heavy, but it provided the fireman with necessary protection from
fire and falling debris.
It was common to decorate the inside of the coats with folktale
heroes or mythical creatures like dragons, in hopes of inspiring
courage and bravery in firefighters. The center of this coat shows
Momotaro, a legendary boy born from a peach, stomping on an
ogre. The smoke billowing behind him reminds us of the use of
this coat, as does the fireman's hook pictured on the left sleeve. After their duty, firemen reversed their coats to display the bold
and inspiring designs.
The Folktale of Momotaro the Peach Boy
A long, long time ago, an old man and his wife lived in a small
village. They had no children and were lonely. Every day the old
man gathered firewood in the mountains and his wife washed
clothes in a nearby river. One day as the old woman was doing
her daily labor, an enormous peach came floating down the river.
She picked it up and carried it home. Just as she was about to cut the peach to serve to her husband, the peach broke apart and
out jumped a baby boy. The old couple was surprised but very
happy to have a child of their own. They named the boy
Momotaro (peach boy). Momotaro grew up tall and kind, and
in no time at all he had become the strongest boy in the village.
One day Momotaro heard about the ogres on a far away island
who spread fear to everyone. He begged the old man and woman
to allow him go to the island to drive away the ogres. Despite their
concern, they gave Momotaro permission and prepared some
millet dumplings for him to eat on his journey.
When he reached the edge of the village, Momotaro met a dog.
"Momotaro, where are you going? What are you carrying in that
bag?" asked the dog. "I'm off to the Ogre Island," replied
Momotaro, "and I'm carrying the most delicious millet dumplings
in all of Japan. If you help me drive away the ogres I'll give you
one." The hungry dog gobbled down a dumpling and became
Momotaro's loyal companion. Soon they came across a pheasant.
In return for a tasty dumpling, the pheasant also agreed to
join Momotaro's party. Next they met a monkey who was also
persuaded to join them in exchange for a millet dumpling.
When Momotaro's party finally reached Ogre Island, they found
a large gate blocking their way. The pheasant flew over it and
unlocked it from inside. The team passed through and was met
by the frightening ogres. "We've come to punish you for hurting
people!" bellowed Momotaro, and charged towards the ogres with
his three animal friends. The pheasant pecked the ogres all over,
the monkey pounced and scratched them, and the dog bit their
arms and legs. Thanks to having eaten the best millet dumplings
in Japan, Momotaro's party had amazing strength and forced the ogres to surrender. Completely overpowered, the defeated leader of
the ogres dropped to his knees before Momotaro and said, "I
promise we will never hurt people again. So please spare our lives!
I beg you!" Thereupon, Momotaro, joined by his amazing partners,
headed back home in triumph.
This object is included in Learning from Asian Art: Japan, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation of New York and Stowe, Vermont. Additional information and activities are included in Learning to Look: 20 Works of Art Across Time and Cultures