|Tokyo Fire Dept.'s mascot (119 is Japan's emergency number)|
Every once and a while you hear a group of people banging sticks and chanting rhythmically as they walk through the neighborhood at night. For the longest time, I had no idea what they were doing. I found out recently that this group is the shōbōdan, or volunteer fire corps on their yomawari (night rounds).
|A fire extinguisher box in our neighborhood|
The shōbōdan have been patrolling cities around Japan for hundreds of years. They warn people to beware of fire, especially during the dry winter. Usually (I've heard) they chant things like "Watch out for fire!" or "A single match can start a fire!). In a neighborhood like ours, where most of the houses are older and made of wood, everything would burn quickly. There are even fire extinguishers in boxes about every block or so.
Here's a video of yomawari in Kyoto (skip to 0:51 to see them in action:
Tokyo has a long history of devastation by fire. One of the worst fires occurred after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Because the quake struck around lunchtime, many people were cooking lunch and the fire spread quickly. Over 45% of Tokyo burned to the ground.
In Yokosuka they have a disaster prevention center where you can try firefighting gear like we did below (it's really heavy!) or experience using a virtual fire extinguisher while yelling "kaji!" (fire)