When I first started hearing this sound at night, all I could think of was a solitary clave player performing a spacious solo piece on the street at night. It continued for days before I caught the artist in the act. The claves were actually hyoshigi, resonant wooden blocks used to catch the audience’s attention in Sumo tournaments and Kabuki theatre. The man playing them was not an aspiring modernist músico de Guaguancó, but a volunteer firefighter on evening patrol. He walked with two companions, all of them wearing flashing vests, and struck his hyoshigi every block to remind its inhabitants to turn off their burners and put out their cigarettes
Tokyo’s volunteer fire corps, known as shobodan, were first organized in 1648, shortly after the city became Japan’s capital. Rapid expansion had pushed the city’s wooden buildings closer together, leading to frequent fires. Today, every fire station in the country has a volunteer corps. They do regular night patrols during the dry winter, as well as running educational programs and aiding in emergency response. Since the war, when Tokyo was virtually destroyed by fire bombing, the shodoban have declined significantly. Communities are less connected and work schedules more demanding. The patrol in my neighborhood is mostly middle-aged and elderly men; like so many traditions, it doesn’t seem to capture the interest of my generation.
The shodoban have received more attention since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Hundreds of volunteers responded and 254 died, highlighting both their continued relevance and the need for better training. The whole system has been under review since the disaster. Of course, that is just what I read on the Internet. All my ears tell me is that the Hakusan Minimalist Latin Percussion Orchestra is keeping up its vigil through the cold dry winter nights. And as I listen to the blocks echoing off the buildings, the sound association in my mind is starting to flip. Someday I will hear a clave rhythm and suddenly become anxious that I left a burner on in my apartment.
Info on shodoban: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/ek20111220wh.html