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From a Researcher’s Notebook: Uncovering the History of the Japanese Fire Brigade Scrolls

Today’s post was written by Dr. Jack Stoneman of BYU’s Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages. Dr. Stoneman and his student assistants have been researching the provenance of a collection of rare Japanese books and manuscripts assembled by collector Harry Bruning, which was acquired by the Lee Library around 1980. Today marks an anniversary for a very rare and valuable item in the collection, and Dr. Stoneman has uncovered some of its history.

Detail from Asakusa okura bōkatai gyōretsu zumaki scrolls, Call number: Vault Collection Folio 895.63 As12 1859. Photo courtesy Jack Stoneman.


On the 26th day of the 4th month of 1859, the Shogun assigned the Tsuyama domain lord Matsudaira Yoshitomo (who was to be the last lord of the Tsuyama domain, before the Meiji restoration and the abolishing of the domain system) the task of protecting the shogunal rice granaries in Asakusa (modern-day Tokyo) from fire. It was routine for domains to provide fire brigades in rotation for the shogun, and the Tsuyama domain (in modern-day Okayama prefecture) had for generations provided fire brigades. On this occasion in 1859, there was a procession of the brigade, and a set of scrolls depicting the procession were commissioned and presented to Matsudaira Yoshitomo. Who knows how, but those scrolls were eventually obtained by Charles Tuttle, who sold them to Harry Bruning in 1949 (for $35).

Firemen brigade parades still occur in Tokyo each year, and so I assumed that a tradition that long-lasting and still current would have a rich visual history to go along with it. Not so. I’ve found only a handful of examples of scrolls or prints depicting fire brigade processions. And, until recently, I had found none that looked like our scrolls.

Last year, when I first looked into our scrolls, I recognized the Matsudaira family crest throughout the scrolls, and eventually found sources indicating that the Matsudaira clan branch that ruled Tsuyama domain had traditionally been assigned to protect the Asakusa granaries, so I knew that much. As we’ve been wrapping up our survey of the whole collection recently, though, I was still irked that I didn’t know much else about the scrolls, but I knew that they must be important, so I began searching again. In the meantime, new information had appeared and was waiting for me on the internet.

Last fall, the Tsuyama City Museum held an exhibition of samurai procession scrolls. I was able to find a description of the exhibit, and, more importantly, an image of the cover of the exhibition catalog. The cover reproduced a scene which depicts the brigade commander, and the same scene is found in scroll #4 of our set (shown here). So, I hurried and contacted the Tsuyama Museum, and shared with them photos of all 5 of our scrolls along with the information I had gathered. They responded immediately and enthusiastically. They have only 3 scrolls. They are missing scroll #1 and scroll #5, which are the two scrolls that contain the most textual information, including the date of the procession and the names of all those involved. Needless to say, they are very grateful to now know a lot more about their scrolls as well. Their scrolls were donated to the museum by Matsudaira descendants. Interestingly, though, our scrolls have quite a bit more detail, more finely detailed painting, and depict the Matsudaira crest throughout, whereas the Tsuyama scrolls don’t have the crest. I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve begun a conversation with the curator at the Tsuyama Museum, who is also interested in studying the differences between the two sets.

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