Hikeshibanten, or fireman's coats, of the nineteenth century were richly painted with apotropaic symbols and literary and mythological references intended to empower and protect the wearer and reference the identifying tattoos of firefighters recorded in Ukiyo-e prints and early photographs.
The victorious scene on this garment was well known from Japanese literature and print culture, and imbued the wearer with his profession's necessary gallantry. The central male figure with a sword between his teeth, his own trunk richly tattooed, is Rorihakucho Cho Jun from the Suikoden, the Japanese translation of the fourteenth-century Chinese novel Shui Hu Zhuan (108 Stars of Destiny). Rorihakucho Cho Jun has been adapted from Utagawa Kuniyoshi's woodcut (ca. 1827-30) depicting him breaking through Yongjin water gate, a torrent of arrows heading toward him, foreboding his imminent death. Here, Rorihakucho Cho Jun's final moments have been altered to effect a more triumphant finale. The coat's artist omitted the fatal arrows, suggesting that the protagonist lives, but included an extraliterary character: a red-faced, demonic adversary nearly drowning.
Over the front of the garment, blooming peonies, fitting symbols of bravery, honor, and bravado, float in calmer waters. Completely reversible, these coats bear simpler geometric motifs on their reverses, along with heraldry of the wearer's family or firehouse, or an auspicious phrase. The decoration on this coat's reverse features an alternating diamond pattern and the characters that may denote the fire brigade's name. The characters on both lapels likely refer to the brigade's location and are possibly a phonetic rendering of Kanazu, a town in the Fukui prefecture.
Entirely hand sewn, hand-painted, and dyed on the interior in the tsutsugaki resist-dyeing method, this elaborate coat was probably worn by a firefighter not "in the line of fire" but rather when paying condolences to victims' families, on formal occasions, and at town festivities where firemen performed acrobatic entertainments.