Adela,  Asia,  Japan

The Great Fire of Meireki

10400157_226407791034644_3949853733772493492_nOne of the greatest disasters in Japanese history, began in the Japanese capital city of Edo on March 2, 1657. Legend has it that the fire was accidentally started by a priest who was supposedly trying to cremate a cursed kimono. The kimono had been owned in succession by three teenage girls who all died before ever being able to wear it. When the garment was being burned, a large gust of wind fanned the flames causing the wooden temple to ignite.

The fire spread quickly through the city, due to hurricane force winds which were blowing from the northwest. Edo, like most Japanese cities and the buildings were especially dry due to a drought the previous year, and the roads and other open spaces between buildings were small and narrow, allowing the fire to spread and grow particularly quickly.

On the second evening, the winds changed, and the fire was pushed from the southern edges of the city back towards its center. The homes of the shogun’s closest retainers, in Kōjimachi, were destroyed as the fire made its way towards Edo castle, at the very center of the city. Ultimately, the main keep was saved, but most of the outer buildings, and all of the retainers’ and servants’ homes were destroyed. Finally, on the third day, the winds died down, as did the flames, but thick smoke prevented movement about the city, removal of bodies, and reconstruction until six days later. Monks and others began to transport the bodies of those killed down the Sumida River to Honjo, Sumida, Tokyo, a community on the eastern side of the river. It’s estimated to have claimed over 100,000 lives. There, pits were dug and the bodies buried; the Ekō-in (Hall of Prayer for the Dead) was then built on the site.

It took nearly two years to begin reconstruction, as the shogunate took the opportunity to reorganize the city according to various practical considerations. Under the guidance of Rōjū Matsudaira Nobutsuna, streets were widened and some districts replanned and reorganized; special care was taken to restore Edo’s mercantile center, thus protecting and boosting to some extent the overall national economy. Commoners and samurai retainers alike were granted funds from the government for the rebuilding of their homes, and the restoration of the shogun’s castle was left to be completed last. The area around the castle, as it was restored, was reorganized to leave greater spaces to act as firebreaks; retainers’ homes were moved further from the castle, and a number of temples and shrines were relocated to the banks of the river.