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 couple 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.

People can join from the age of 18 but the average age of new members is around 33, which is not altogether surprising given that settling down in the area is essentially the base requirement. Foreigners are allowed to join, although Japanese ability is obviously very important. While there aren't currently any female members in the Nakanoshima team, this isn't as a rule and there are women serving in other teams. As new members join, senior members retire, with the average length of service being between 10-15 years. As is common in Japanese culture, retired members are affectionately called “OB” (Old Boy) and “OG” (Old Girl).

Japan has a very culturally engrained ‘senior, junior’ hierarchy in place. Viewed from a western perspective, and having seen and heard about individuals taking advantage of it, it may come across as excessive, but as Kentaro-san explained to me, there are legitimate reasons for its existence. Senior members take responsibility for their juniors. If a junior makes a serious mistake, the blame will largely be placed on their senior. This places pressure on older members to instruct their juniors properly. It’s not just a matter of blame though, as it’s imperative that all members perform their duties to the letter; anything less at the scene of a fire can result in injury to themselves or others. This system helps to ensure that junior members are trained properly, standards are maintained and injuries minimized.

A by-product of this is the interesting and often amusing family dynamic it creates, with newer members serving the seniors in an endearing fashion and taking care of most menial duties. There are a lot of smiles to be seen among the Nakanoshima fire corps. They are an extraordinarily friendly group, with the camaraderie being one of the perks of joining. After they’ve trained, they eat and drink together, and there are moments of hilarity, as is the case with most happy families.

Each year, the four fire corps teams comprising the district of Tama gather together and compete to see who is the best at setting up a hose and dowsing a target representing a fire. For this event specifically, the Nakanoshima group relentlessly drills the same movements for over 2 hours, 4 days a week in the month leading up to the competition, with senior members strictly teaching the members set to compete until their performance is up to par. White lines are ideally stepped to exactly, salutes must be sharp, movements crisp. There is a very specific way to do everything, from standing to attention, to holding a hose that has water pumped through it at high velocity. It's a demonstration of precision, speed and prowess. The training for the competition improves their movements and both instills and maintains an intensity in their duties. The visible sweat and exhaustion during their training testifies to that.

In 2019, as well as in several previous years, the Nakanoshima team won the annual district competition, and will therefore be competing in the next city-wide competition (held every two years) in 2020. Should they place in the top 2 for this they will then compete in the prefectural competition, which they’ve only achieved once before. Given what I’ve seen this year I believe they stand a good chance.

From even just a glance, it's clear none of the members take their service lightly. They exude discipline and tight efficiency. They train hard so that when they're needed, they perform as flawlessly as possible. There's no room for error when people's homes and lives are at stake. Hopefully they will never need to be the heroes they aspire to be.