March 2nd 1657: Great Fire of Meireki

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Scroll depicting the Great Fire

On this day in 1657 a fire ravaged the Japanese capital city of Edo (which is now Tokyo). The fire burned for three days, destroying two thirds of the city and claiming 100,000 lives. Edo Castle, a mighty testament to Edo’s rising prosperity and home of the shogun, was lost to the flames. The event is sometimes called the Furisode Fire, in reference to a legend about the cause of the fire. A furisode is the best kimono for an unmarried woman, and as legend has it the fire was ignited by the ceremonial burning of a supposedly cursed kimono which had been owned by several young women who had died soon after receiving the item.

 

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Map of Edo from the 1630s

Edo was particularly susceptible to fire, as the buildings were made mostly of wood and paper and stood very close together. The buildings were also very dry due to a recent drought, providing prime conditions for a fire to spread. The fire forever changed the face of Edo, with new firebreaks installed, streets widened and plaster roofs the norm. This event remains one of the greatest disasters in Japanese history, alongside the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake and the bombing of Tokyo during the Second World War.

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