fire corps

The Japanese Fire Corps (消防団) are groups of locally living or working individuals who volunteer to train, work, and assist in the prevention and resolution of house fires. Their activities are funded by the city, but otherwise they receive no renumeration unless they retire after 5 or more years of service. Motivation for joining comes from a desire to help others, to serve the community and to be a part of something. Sukegawa Yuichi (41), a member in his 5th year of service at the Nakanoshima branch of the fire corps in Kanagawa, told me spiritedly “I want to become a hero”, and while certainly a respectable aspiration, these members all understand that creating a community without need of a hero is the ideal. Naturally, preventing disasters is always preferable to dealing with ones that have already started.

I first met the Nakanoshima fire corps, led by Motoyama Masaharu (44), in February 2019. Many times over the past 3 years I'd walked by their headquarters - a slim two-story structure just barely housing their small fire truck, with a meeting room on the second floor. I'd always wanted to greet them, but they were always in the middle of training. When the day finally came that I spoke to them, it wasn’t to document their activities - it was to take part in them. I’d actually wanted to become a professional firefighter, but after discovering that at the age of 32 I’d already “aged out”, the idea of becoming a volunteer firefighter followed.

My interest was warmly received, especially by Tamura Kentaro (47), who has been serving for 23 years and now oversees four teams comprising half the Tama district, including Nakanoshima. I ended up shadowing them for a few training sessions, which increased my interest, but despite how well we got along and how much enthusiasm there was at the idea of me joining, in the end, we mutually put it on hold as I wasn’t able to commit to living or working in the immediate area for an extended length of time, which as it turns out is the main requisite of joining.

Fortunately, my relationship with them didn't end there. By the time the idea of my joining had reached it's anti-climactic ending, I’d become friends with a few of them and one day I broached the idea of photographing their activities to Kentaro-san (contrary to the norm in Japan, he prefers to be called by his first name). It was an idea that came to me when I first shadowed their training at the Tamagawa River. The bright red of the fire engine's lights amid the oppressive dark, the somewhat isolated area populated by these volunteers firing streams of water into the night - it all felt visually dramatic and atmospheric. The idea was well received and eventually the project took form.

All the Nakanoshima team members have jobs, most even own their own companies, and most are married with children. Despite the additional time commitments that come with volunteering, they do so with the support and pride of their families. All the members support each other and typically, all members are seldom needed to congregate together at any one time. There are two preset days of service a month, with additional days allocated as per scheduled duties or training. 

Member duties include dowsing small fires, assisting firefighters at larger incidents, guard/staff duties at festivals, and teaching fire safety to elementary school students. The support of the fire corps allows professional firefighters to focus on the heavy lifting of extinguishing raging fires and rescuing people from buildings. The volunteers have their limits as to what they can engage in given the extent of their training and equipment, but they play an important role; not just for smaller incidents, but larger disasters too, where ready and organized rescue staff are much needed. On average, the Nakanoshima team attends to around 10 incidents a year, but the number of times they combat actual fires is fewer. In 2017, there were 37,393 house fires across Japan, resulting in 1496 dead and 6052 injured. The Fire Corps play an important role in spreading fire safety awareness in their communities, something that can always be improved.