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How Christmas Caused the Shirokiya Department Store Fire of 1932

Shirokiya department store fire of 1932 (Wikimedia Commons)

The bright lights and persistent Christmas tunes playing in stores around Christmas time in Japan are all a bit weird, if you consider that there are only about 1.9 million people (out of 128 million), or 1.5% of the population, who consider themselves to be Christians as of 2017. Christianity is mainly a secular holiday in Japan, where the fun and pretty parts are enjoyed, without getting much into the religious aspects. That means that Christmas trees and other Christmas themed decorations are popular, as well as a Christmas feast on the 24th or on the 25th, exchanging presents and so on. It's not an actual holiday for workers or students (the school term often ends on the 25th of December or a day or so later), and there's a big, actual holiday right around the corner called New Years, so it's not that huge a deal. It's mainly a day to have fun - it's actually seen as a day for couples to get together, almost more than it's a day for kids and families.

Christmas in Japan goes back at least 100 years

The history of Christmas celebrations in Japan is older than a lot of people may think. As early as the 1900s, there are ads for Christmas decorations and articles in women's magazines about making a Christmas dinner. In the 1910, it had already been established as a romantic event, enjoyed more by adults, especially ones who were into the new western-style 'dating' habit.

By the 1930s, Christmas was already being called a "tradition", and had been adopted by well heeled bourgeois families. Here's a graphic from a women's magazine (Shufu no Tomo, "The Housewife's Friend/Companion") in 1932, showing Santa Claus bringing dossari (a load of) gifts to children who have been good.

Santa Claus in a Japanese magazine in 1932

In the same issue, there is this photo of a family decorating a Christmas tree. The dialog below it has Mother saying that she wanted to surprise "Papa" by using a tree from the garden, and decorating it as best she could with mo-ru (tinsel) and a few toys she had bought. It's interesting that the father is already being called Papa. Papa's dangling cigarette is a bit worrying though.

Christmas in Japan, 1932

Speaking of which...

The Shirokiya department store fire of December 1932

Shirikiya department store fire

The Shirokiya department store fire

In the same year, 1932, just around the time this magazine issue appeared, one of the biggest and most tragic fires in modern Japanese history occurred at the Shirokiya department store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo.

At the time, Shirokiya was one of the major department stores in the nation, along with Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya and others. Shirokiya was born as a lumber company (thus the name shiroki, which means 'white wood') in the 17th century in Kyoto. It eventually grew into a major gofuku-ten or clothing store in Edo (Tokyo). In the Meiji period and beyond, it become a big department store with several branches. The flagship store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, which has been destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, had just been rebuilt in 1931 - a very au courant building made of brick and stone.

Shirokiya Gofuku-ten in an ukiyoe by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1857-58

Shirokiya in the mid 19th century (right side of the picture), in an ukiyoe by Utagawa Hiroshige, part of his 100 Famous Places of Edo series.

By 1932, Christmas had become widespread enough for stores to promote the sales of Christmas presents in a big way. The department store was decked out with decorated Christmas trees, and the shelves were piled high with gift items. On the morning of December 16, one of the light bulbs on a Christmas tree on the 4th floor, where the toy department was located, went out. As male employee tried to fix it, a wire accidentally came in contact with the socket, causing a spark. That spark made the tree catch fire, and the fire quickly spread to a big pile of celluloid toys right nearby.

Because of all the celluloid trees, tinsel, and other flammable objects, the fire spread very quickly. Several employees and customers managed to stay safe by going up to the roof, lead by the quick thinking store manager. Many others were rescued to the ground. However, several panicked, or collapsed due to smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning, including that employee who accidentally started the fire. In all, 14 people died; 13 store employees and 1 employee of a supplier. No customers were killed; 67 in all were injured. It was the first high rise building fire in Japanese history. If it hadn't been Christmas time, it might never have happened.

Did the fire make women put on underpants?

One of the curious aftermaths of the Shirokiya department store fire was the story that sprang up some years afterwards, that several female store employees had lost their lives because they weren't wearing underwear - or specifically, drawers (called zuro-su), under their kimonos. As this illustration from around that time shows, most store employees, as well as customers, still wore kimonos on an everyday basis in the early 1930.

Department store attendant and customer in the 1930s

Traditionally, Japanese women did not wear what we would not call underpants-like undergarments with a crotch-covering part under kimonos. They would typically wear something called a yumoji, a long cloth that wrapped around the waist and hips and functioned rather like a girdle or corset to hold things in, then a hadajuban, a long wrap-around cotton or linen undergarment, then the accessories and garments that are visible. Western style clothes was still only worn by a minority of women.

Shortly after the fire, one of the store's executives told a reporter at the Asahi Shimbun paper that a few of the female employees who had run down the stairs to the lower floors had realized that people could probably see up their disheveled kimonos, felt acutely embarrassed and stumbled and fell, injuring themselves. Those employees got up and managed to get out though. However, most of the ones who died had panicked and jumped out of the windows from higher floors. Somehow these two stories got mixed up in the public imagination, and the story spread that women had been too ashamed to show their private parts and had perished as a result.

Another story that spread much later is that the fire was the impetus for the widespread adoption of zuro-su, drawers or loose underpants. That is a bit suspect too, since wearing drawers only became common some years later, when western style clothes became widely adopted. Still, both stories still persist. (I do remember that the word zuro-su for loose shorts-like underpants was still in fairly wide use well into the 1980s. Some older women may still use the term.)

The verifiable aftermath of the Shirokiya department store fire is that it lead to improved fire codes, a special firefighting unit for dealing with fires in the newfangled high rises, the forerunner of the Special Rescue Unit of the Tokyo Fire Department.

What happened to Shirokiya?

The Shirokiya department store actually survived the tragedy of the fire and other problems, even the war. After the war it became a publicly traded company, and in 1957 it was acquired by Toyoko Enterprises. Several mergers and so on later, it became the conglomerate that is now known as the Tokyu Corporation, which owns Tokyu department stores, the Tokyu Railway system, and more. There is no Tokyu department store left in Nihonbashi anymore, and the chic Coredo shopping complex stands where the Shirokiya department store used to be.

Shirokiya in Honolulu, Hawai'i

Shirokiya Japan Village Walk, Alana Moana Mall, Oahu, Hawai'i is the only remaining store called Shirokiya of that lineage.

By the way, if you are from Hawai'i or have visited there, the name Shirokiya is probably familiar. The Shirokiya store was opened by Tokyu in 1959, but sold to a U.S. holding company in 2001. It is, as far as I know, the only remaining department store with the Shirokiya name anywhere, although it's no longer part of the Tokyu group.

References

Both are in Japanese.

  • Shirokiya department store fire article from the Museum of Fire and Disaster (an internet only 'museum' with lot of great information)
  • A page of reference material about the undergarment industry post-fire. Publications from later dates repeated the theory that western style underwear spread rapidly as a result of the fire, but later research into primary sources say that did not happen.

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