One of the more iconic types of poster you’ll find in Japan are the fire safety posters. Often adorned with a cute girl or popular celebrity, they aim to raise awareness of accidental fires in the home and encourage people to be vigilant.
It could also be translated as ‘taking precautions to prevent fires’ or ‘watch out for fire’, among other things. The Kanji are quite simple too, so it’s a nice little phrase to learn to help remember the characters.
Interestingly, as a cultural point, volunteer members of the local fire brigade sometimes walk around the streets at night banging wooden sticks together. This is a form of 火の用心 – reminding people not to be lax with fire. I heard it most recently around Christmas and New Year on a few consecutive nights, when the cold winter air is dry and the risk of fire greater than normal. You can often recognise the activity from the distinctive sounds of two clacks of the wooden sticks (the onomatopoeia – カチン、カチン) and the almost ritual chanting that goes with it:
火の用心 – Watch Out for Fire!
拍子木 (ひょうしぎ) – Wooden sticks – used in fire safety practices like the one above, as well as in Sumo and Kabuki shows.
夜回り (よまわり) – Night rounds – Walking around (the neighbourhood) at night (for things like fire or crime prevention).
I’m sure it’s out. Don’t assume. Check it once more.
Above is the rough translation of the poster. You’ll notice how it’s broken up into several shorter sentences that seem to flow quite nicely. The more astute among you may have even realised that it’s in the form of a 俳句 (haiku)! This is a short Japanese poem consisting of syallables (mora, actually), in the pattern of 5-7-5.
Some other 火の用心 haiku are as follows:
火のしまつ 君がしなくて 誰がする
Putting out the fire. If you don’t do it. Who will?
しまつ (しまつ) is a somewhat tricky expression having the nuance of the end/settlement/manage/deal with. In this case then, it refers to the ‘end of the fire’ or putting it out.
その油断 火から炎へ 災いへ
Your negligence. From flame to fire. To calamity.
This is a clever haiku creating a vivid image of a fire growing in intensity and ferocity. 油断 is to put something off or be negligent. The その here is unmistakingly pointing at each at us us, trying to get us to reflect on our own lack of action in the past. 火 is a flame or fire, the size depending on the situation. 炎 as you might guess from the Kanji being made up of two fires, is more like a blaze – a fire of greater intensity, although this too can depend on the context. Finally, we finish with 災い – the Kanji for disaster or calamity. You can imagine the smoke rising up from the fire of a great catastrophe.
You will usually find this Kanji in the word 災害 (さいがい), meaning disaster. It is made up of the Kanji for calamity (災 – さい) and harm (害 – がい).
Well then, stay safe this winter!