The New Year Firefighter Ceremony—officially called dezome-shiki (出初式)—is a display of acrobatics and other skills organized by the Tokyo Fire Department. Its history dates back to the early years of the Edo period when the city was a veritable tinderbox—tightly packed wooden housing often with only narrow alleyways over which fires could jump with a little help from the wind. Fires were a common occurrence and so in 1643 a dedicated team of firefighters were formed from among the samurai ranks.
While a step forward, their small numbers and lack of training were no match for the Great Fire of Meireki when it struck Edo in 1657, claiming over 100,000 lives. In response, a new organizational structure was introduced in 1658 with a greater number of recruits who lived together in units—a precursor to the modern day fire station. Members of this newly formed department gathered in February 1659 at Ueno Tosho Shrine in what is today Ueno Park to pray for a safe year. This was the first dezome-shiki.
Today, Tokyo’s dezome-shiki is a large-scale event: firefighters adorn Edo period costumes and perform various acrobatics atop of bamboo ladders (a necessity in Edo Tokyo where the main way to prevent the fire spreading was to get on top of the roofs of surrounding buildings to tear them down), emergency drills are performed, fire engines parade the streets, the service’s helicopters and boats put on displays, and Tokyo Fire Department’s brass band perform for the public.
The performance area is the northeast parking lot of Tokyo Big Sight but there are also exhibitions inside Tokyo Big Sight. The site opens at 8am with the first performances starting at 9:30am. The ceremony lasts until about midday. Finally, note that there is a limit of 4,000 seats (including standing) with tickets handed out on the day on a first-come-first-served basis, but television screens are also set up inside Tokyo Big Sight for those that don’t make the cut.