Fire Was No Stranger to Tokyo

© 2007 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com

Just before noon on September 1st, 1923, an earthquake struck Tokyo. Since so many people were using fire to cook their lunch, nearly the entire city was set ablaze. High winds (there was a typhoon just off the coast) spread the fires rapidly. More than half a million homes were destroyed and nearly two million people were left homeless. Over one hundred thousand perished.

During World War II, the 20th and 21st bomber commands repeatedly firebombed the city. On a single night (March 10, 1945) 279 B-29s Superfortress bombers destroyed 25% of the city and claimed another 100,000 lives.

In 1990 we moved from New York City to Tokyo. We had mixed feelings about finding a place near a Minato-ku firehouse. In New York, we had lived down the block from Engine Company # 5 where the friendly firefighters would let our children climb on their truck whenever we passed. On the other hand, we were frequently woken by their sirens.

Yet we never heard a single fire truck or even saw one on the streets of Tokyo for the nearly three years we lived there. To this day I can not tell you what one sounds like.

One night, we were having dinner at Tony Roma’s Place for Ribs (which is right next to the Hard Rock Café in Roppongi). At the adjacent table was an obviously American couple. We asked if they were tourists.

“Not exactly.”

“Are you on business?”

“Kind of.”

It turns out he was a fireman from Dallas, Texas. A philanthropist had paid for 50 firefighters (one from each State) to come to Tokyo to learn from the Japanese.

“How is it going?”

“Kind of weird.”  On Sunday night they had had a cocktail reception. Monday morning they visited a firehouse where they discovered that Japanese fire trucks were just like American, only smaller.

That afternoon the firefighters were taken to the Tokyo headquarters. They had expected to find high-tech computers but instead they were shown something out of the 50’s; a map with push-pins.

From Monday afternoon until the day when we met them (Thursday), the 50 firefighters were treated to boring lectures by the Fire Chief for all of Tokyo. Eventually they couldn’t take it any more and one of them asked, “When can we go out on a call?”

The Fire Chief responded, “We will go out on a call as soon as we have one. We haven’t had a call all week.” Apparently, they hadn’t had one for many weeks.

Eve and I were as flabbergasted. “How do they do that?” we asked.

“We asked the same question?”

And the Fire Chief’s response: “That is what I have been telling you all week.”

“So,” we asked our man from Dallas, “What did he say?”

“We don’t know,” he answered, “None of us were listening.”

So, I can not tell you why they have so few fires in Tokyo these days, but I can tell you why we have dozens, even hundreds, of calls each night in our major cities.

We don’t listen.

If someone is trying to tell you something, you should try to listen.

Mr. Rieur

© 2007 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

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Mr. Rieur in 2007 at 89 in front of some of the 79,662 photos that he took on his world-wide travels that are now archived at the Consortium Library Library in Anchorage, Alaska.

You most want to be like the person you most admire. That is why, ever since 1963 when I had Mr. Rieur for the sixth grade I have wanted to be a teacher.

His classroom was unlike any other I’d seen before; across the inner wall were terrariums and fish tanks. In the back was a cabinet with his lab equipment and chemical supplies. The ledge by the window was lined with books.

He taught geography with slides and stories of his adventures visiting the places in our syllabus. We saw him standing at the Parthenon as it appeared in our book and then he showed us what Athens looked like from that spot. He taught how to live in the world and love its inhabitants.

We constructed the various types of fire extinguishers described in our science text. Then we used them to put out the fires we would set in the trash can behind the school. Our English assignment was to write a report about the experience.

It seemed like everything was connected to everything else and learning how things worked was fun; about the most fun you could imagine.

Since that time I’ve felt I couldn’t just live a life but I also had to pay attention; not because in the end there will be a test but because someday I’ll be called upon to teach others.

Those who can do, please teach.

P. S. On September 29, 2007, Mr. Rieur celebrates his 90th birthday. Please wish him well.