火の用心 Hi no Yōjin (Beware of Fire)

This brief recording documents one winter public service practice of many Japanese urban communities: Hi no Yōjin, or 'Beware of Fire'.  During the winter, members of a chōnaikai, the local neighbourhood association, walk through the streets carrying small wooden sticks which they smack together periodically to draw the attention of the local residents.  Thus sonically alerted, residents then hear the volunteers chant 'Hi no yōjin' (beware of fire).  This friendly reminder comes usually in the winter and at dinner time, so that cooks standing over their stoves making hot meals are reminded to take care that oil doesn't catch fire.  Winter evenings are also targeted because this is when most residents have their heating on, and many Japanese families still use free standing kerosene heaters that need to be filled and monitored.  Wintertime is thus the prime season for fire prevention, and Japanese urban communities have a longstanding history of communal work to prevent residential fires in their closely knit communities.

Hi no yojin sign at Yanaka Fire station

This 40 second recording was taken in January 2012 in a section of Tokyo known as the 'Shitamachi' (old Tokyo).  My friend and I walk behind the chōnaikai members (you can hear her giggle a bit at the start).  Then you will hear the volunteer chant 'hi no yōjin' (0:09) and the smack of the wooden sticks (0:11).  The volunteers then walk further into the night, their footsteps heard above the gentle murmurs of cars in the distance (0:07 and again at 0:24). Except for the rhythmic steps and the chant punctuated by the staccato sticks, the night is quiet and dark, and the air is cold in our nostrils...turning a corner, the chōnaikai members alert another household of the dangers of fire. The sound of the sticks is sharp, but there are long spaces between them. The gaps of silence between the alert serves to sharpen our attention to the warning. This is a good example of a 'sonic warning':  that is, while signs might alert us visually to the dangers of fire, we might look away or forget to look.  The sharp sound of the sticks cuts through the night air at a time when many residents are stirring pots over gas stoves; immediately our minds and ears are drawn to the chōnaikai's message.

Recording and photo by Carolyn Stevens

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