Okuri Hyōshigi – The Fire-Patrol Ghost of Hongo

In my December 20 column in The Japan Times, I wrote about yomawari 夜回り – — neighborhood fire patrols in which wooden sticks called hyōshigi 拍子木 are clapped together to warn residents to be careful of fire. If you look closely at the print at left, in the upper right hand corner, you’ll see a ghost carrying a pair of these sticks. That’s Okuri Hyōshigi 送り拍子木 or sometimes 送撃柝, a ghost who haunts the Hongo neighborhood of Tokyo. Or more accurately a mysterious phenomenon that is one of the Honjo Nana-Fushigi 本所七不思議 (Seven Wonders of Hongo). The print dates from about 1886 and is part of a series by Utagawa Kuniteru 歌川国輝. The Edo-era story goes that when fire patrols in Hongo would bang their sticks, they’d hear another set of sticks. Thinking there was another patrol out and about, they’d look around, but no one would be there.

Interestingly, my research on Okuri Hyōshigi led me to this book by Asuka Akio which claims that Okuri Hyōshigi and other Japanese ghost stories originated not in Japan but in ancient Jewish tradition.
The title is “Yudaya kara kita Nihon no Yōkaitachi,” ユダヤから来た日本の妖怪たち (“Japanese Ghosts That Came from Judea”). This was so intriguing that I had to get my hands on a copy. (If you’re interested, it’s available on Amazon Japan by clicking here). I’m still trying to make my way through his argument, which cites the New Testament and gets into Freemasonry and pyramids. I’ll let you know if I figure it all out.

Finally, as promised at the end of my column, here’s a video, with some English subtitles and narration, that shows a typical Tokyo neighborhood fire patrol shot in December a few years ago.

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7 Responses to Okuri Hyōshigi – The Fire-Patrol Ghost of Hongo

  1. Jason Smith - 松本消防団 says:

    Thanks for talking about the Shouboudan. It’s rather sad that the tradition is dying as we do an awful lot (I didn’t realize just how much until I ended up being somewhat shanghaied into it).

  2. ryukyumike says:

    Wow. Who would ever have thought a Japanese Ghost story could come from Judea?

  3. Interesting! I haven’t heard of that book, but it sounds like it might have some interesting theories–if not ones I could completely agree with.

    By the way, I have a translation of that print on my hyakumonogatari website if anyone is interested:

    The “Following Wooden Clappers”
    http://hyakumonogatari.com/2010/08/18/the-%e2%80%9cfollowing-wooden-clappers%e2%80%9d/

  4. Lurker says:

    So, what’s going in the picture with the ghost? It looks like he’s scaring someone into dropping a lantern and starting a fire. Sounds counterproductive for a fire-prevention ghost.

  5. If you read my translation of the print, the ghost isn’t a “fire-prevention” ghost! It just stalks behind people late at night and scares them by clapping at them.

  6. melinda says:

    i can hear them banging sticks in my neighbourhood now.i can’t make out what they chant though.it almost sounds like fire!

  7. Adam says:

    I just saw an anime that seemed to reference these fire patrols. I don’t know if you get Crunchyroll over there, but it is called “Chitose Get you!” in English on that site.
    Anyway, in episode 7, an odd little girl shows up for a fire drill spouting a number of the shōbōdan slogans. The only oddity, (besides the fact that she was an odd little kid) was that she carried a stick with streamers & a white circle with a horizontal black bar on it. (I want to be a smarty pants & say it was the kanji for 1, but I could be wrong…) I don’t see that in the video though…

    The episode on Crunchyroll:
    http://www.crunchyroll.com/chitose-get-you/episode-7-fire-drill-606827

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