Meireki Fire Ravages Edo Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A huge conflagration killed more than 100,000 people, burned part of Edo Castle, and destroyed more than 350 shrines and temples. In the fire’s aftermath, greater official attention was paid to urban planning, fire prevention, and firefighting techniques.

Summary of Event

Edo was established in 1457, when the warlordŌta Dōkan first constructed a castle in what is now the Chiyoda Ward of Tokyo. As with other major castles in Japan, a community of merchants and artisans grew around the structure, developing randomly into a jōkamachi, or castle town. After Edo Castle was taken over by Tokugawa Ieyasu Tokugawa Ieyasu , who made it the administrative center of his shogunate in 1603, it was partly rebuilt, but much of its old structure was retained. [kw]Meireki Fire Ravages Edo (Jan. 18-20, 1657) [kw]Edo, Meireki Fire Ravages (Jan. 18-20, 1657) [kw]Fire Ravages Edo, Meireki (Jan. 18-20, 1657) Natural disasters;Jan. 18-20, 1657: Meireki Fire Ravages Edo[1920] Japan;Jan. 18-20, 1657: Meireki Fire Ravages Edo[1920] Edo;Meireki fire Meireki fire Japan;Meireki fire

The surrounding city of Edo expanded greatly, but there remained districts of densely clustered wooden buildings and narrow meandering roads. Wide avenues and bridges were kept to a minimum because the authorities wished to avoid direct routes that could be used by attacking forces in the event of a rebellion. Narrow lanes could easily become traps for people attempting to flee, causing them to be trampled to death or killed in another way. Ferry services were used instead of bridges, making it difficult for large numbers of people to seek safety by crossing rivers. Under these conditions, it is remarkable that a major fire catastrophe did not occur for another half century.

The fire that destroyed much of the city of Edo between January 18 and 20, 1657, killed an estimated 100,000 people or more. The fire is known in Japanese history as the Meireki no taika, the great Meireki era fire. It is also known as the Furisode kaji, the long-sleeved kimono fire. The fire was popularly believed to have started at the Honmyō Temple Honmyō Temple[Honmyo Temple] , in the Hongō District in the northern part of the city, after a long-sleeved kimono of a deceased person was ignited during a memorial service and carried away by the wind, setting fire to nearby residences

Another tradition held that the fire started accidentally in the nearby home of Abe Tadaaki Abe Tadaaki , a powerful feudal lord and adviser to the young shogun Tokugawa Ietsuna Tokugawa Ietsuna . In this version of the story, supported by extant records in the Honmyō Temple, shogunate authorities, to avoid any connection of Abe with this enormous disaster, pressured the clergy to publicly accept blame. By law, a householder whose own home alone burned by accident was blameless, but if the fire destroyed other homes, that person was liable and could be punished severely. If a big fire spread from a temple, however, its clergy would receive only a sentence of self-imposed penitence for a specified time.

According to the Musashi abumi Musashi abumi (Asai) (1661; Edo circuit), an account by the contemporary writer Asai Ryōi Asai Ryōi , the fire was preceded by more than eighty continuous days without rain. The flames spread rapidly through blocks of clustered and dry wooden dwellings and were fanned by a strong northwest wind. When it seemed that the fire seemed to have burned itself out in one area, it blazed up in a new one, giving the impression that separate fires were starting, so some records suggest that there were three massive independent fires

After breaking out in Hongō early in the afternoon of January 18, the fire spread across the city by the morning of the next day. It moved southeast to the Nihonbashi area, was carried by the wind across the Sumida River, and engulfed the Fukagawa and Honjō areas at the southeastern end of Edo. The fire also spread northwest from Hongō to the Koishikawa area, and southwest to Kōjimachi. From there the flames moved east, destroying part of Edo Castle. The fire died down in the early morning hours of January 20, having largely burned itself out. It left nothing but huge stretches of empty blackened ground in its wake

In addition to destroying part of Edo Castle, the conflagration incinerated the residences of approximately 160 great feudal lords, close to 800 mansions of prominent Tokugawa retainers, approximately 350 temples and shrines, 60 bridges, and more than 400 blocks of densely clustered shops and homes in areas where commoners lived. More than 60 percent of Edo was left in ruins, and more people were killed than in any other fire in the city prior to the twentieth century

Soon after the fires ended, the shogunate began to distribute ten thousand packets of silver to commoners and aristocrats alike to assist them in rebuilding, and distributed massive quantities of food to the townspeople. This prompt and unexpectedly generous relief forestalled any major public recriminations against the shogunate, concerning either negligence in fire prevention or failure to attempt to extinguish the fire at an early stage. Tens of thousands of unidentifiable bodies, many of which had been trapped in firestorms by the lack of bridges, were transported by the authorities to the other side of the Sumida River and put in mass graves. The shogunate also established a permanent Buddhist temple at the site, the Ekō-in, in memory of the victims

The great fire prompted a concern with fire prevention, especially because the fire destroyed part of Edo Castle and threatened the shogun and his administration personally. Instead of allowing people to begin rebuilding in their original locations, the shogunate developed a plan to enlarge the city, create open spaces and fire breaks, widen roads, construct more bridges, and relocate much of the urban population in new areas. The large amounts spent by the shogunate on relief and reconstruction made it easier to relocate large numbers of people without creating civil unrest. The relief and reconstruction effort marked the beginning of rational, systematic urban planning in Japan

Both the relief and reconstruction efforts were carried out under the overall leadership of Matsudaira Nobutsuna Matsudaira Nobutsuna , a rōjū, or senior councillor to the shogun. Matsudaira commissioned a comprehensive land survey to plan the reconstruction, a survey that was carried out under the supervision of Hōjō Masafusa Hōjō Masafusa , a lower-level aristocratic official. The actual surveying work was done by Kanazawa Kiyozaemon Kanazawa Kiyozaemon , who had studied under a teacher well versed in Western surveying methods, resulting in the first modern survey and map of the rebuilt city of Edo. Engineering;Japan


Many of the shopping and residential districts for the ordinary merchants and artisans were moved across the Sumida River, well past the location of the Ekō-in. Most of the area designated for commoners was relocated well away from Edo Castle. This new area for commoners was linked to the inner city by the construction of the Ryōgoku Bridge across the river. Many mansions of leading Tokugawa relatives of the shogun who previously lived within the Edo Castle grounds, as well as the residences of many major feudal lords and retainers, were moved to the areas where the commoners had formerly lived.

Originating as an extension of the castle and segmented by unbridged river crossings for defensive purposes, Edo was rebuilt after the Meireki fire as a true city, with many bridges and linking roads. Open spaces were created within the castle grounds, and many temples and shrines, including the Honmyō Temple, were moved from the city to distant locations. Decentralization developed new settlements well beyond the outer castle moat, greatly enlarging the city.

With disaster mitigation in mind, officials widened city streets and built embankments to serve as fire breaks. Rebuilding after the Meireki fire was guided by the first official instance of urban planning in Japanese history. The basic layout of the city remained the same from this time on, and rebuilding after subsequent disasters over the following three centuries generally followed guidelines developed by Matsudaira and his staff after the great fire.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jinnai, Hidenobu, and Kimiko Nishimura. Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. An archaeological study of Edo and Tokyo, tracing the marked changes of many urban disasters through the years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Naito, Akira, and Kazuo Hozumi. Edo, the City That Became Tokyo: An Illustrated History. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2003. A survey of the history of Tokyo, with attention to premodern culture, urban disasters, and urban planning.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nishiyama, Matsunosuke, and Gerald Groener. Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997. An English adaptation of work by a leading Japanese historian of Edo life and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seidensticker, Edward. Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. An anecdotal account by an authority on Tokyo, with emphasis on the premodern period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sorenson, Andre. The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty-First Century. London: Nissan Institute/Routledge Japanese Studies, 2002. The first comprehensive study in English of the history of Japanese urban planning.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yonemoto, Marcia. Mapping Early Modern Japan: Space, Place, and Culture in the Tokugawa Period, 1603-1868. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. An ethnogeographical study of Tokugawa Japan.
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