Friday, 10 March 2017

Fear of Fire (and Fathers)

A picture of a fire extinguisher in an orange box on a Tokyo street with the kanji written down the front
Fire extinguishers (shōkaki) on every corner

These brightly painted orange boxes house fire extinguishers (shōkaki) can be found all over most neighbourhoods, ready for use at a moment's notice (amazingly they are never vandalised). The Japanese fear of natural disasters and especially fire is very real: as the saying goes, Japanese are most fearful of earthquakes, lightning, fire, and fathers (地震雷火事親父). At night, it is not unusual to hear the local fire volunteer brigade (消防団) driving round the neighbourhood, ringing a bell and warning people to be "careful of fire" (hi no yōjin). The need to take care is acute: many Japanese still use paraffin (kerosene) space-heaters in the absence of central heating and it's common to see red plastic jerrycans outside people's houses waiting for the paraffin truck to come round and fill them (our truck alerts us by playing the Carpenters!). This is of course a highly inflammable liquid and splashing it over the tatami while filling the heater after a few cans of sake has been the cause of numerous fires. The problem is exacerbated by another social issue: the growing number of akiya or vacant houses. Numbering over 8 million - or more than 1 in 10 houses - these old wooden firetraps have prompted the government to make it easier to get them demolished. The reason why they are abandoned touches on another difference with the UK and elsewhere: property in Japan has perhaps a 20 to 30 year lifespan after which the value depreciates rapidly - houses of a certain age have very little re-sale value. In a country which is said to be so fond of tradition, the desire to demolish and re-build makes for an interesting contradiction, one that is perhaps explained by living day-to-day in fear of the next big earthquake and the fire that inevitably follows.