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Fireman's Coat (Hikeshibanten)
Fireman's Coat (Hikeshibanten), 19th century
Japanese
Painted plain weave cotton 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
2000-113-14
[ More Details ]

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.

 

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