Special Rescue Teams

  • Peter Barakan


    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt


    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Masayuki Kikuchi

    Main guest

    Masayuki Kikuchi is a photojournalist who has traveled all over the world taking photos related to military and political developments. His work has been published in various magazines and books. After the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, he shifted his focus to crisis management. Kikuchi now documents the police, the Coast Guard, and firefighters, among numerous other types of first responders.


October 24, 2017

Special Rescue Teams

*You will leave the NHK website.

Japan is prone to an array of natural disasters: earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, and more. It's also home to some of the world's best equipped and best trained special rescue teams, which are the focus of this edition of Japanology Plus.

Japan's special rescue teams come in many forms: from those assembled by the police, to firefighters, to the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and its Ground, Maritime and Air branches, the latter of which includes the elite Air Rescue Wing featured on the program.


The Air Rescue Wing handles some of Japan's toughest rescue operations.

Another group of special rescue teams introduced on the program are Japan's volunteer fire brigades, which have existed for over 300 years. These civilian groups are thought to have come into being in the 1600s, when a decree was issued in fire-prone Edo (now Tokyo) for residents to make nightly patrols to check for fire safety.

When they are not battling fires or coordinating with fire departments, these volunteer groups can often be spotted—and heard—walking through neighborhoods at night, carrying wooden sticks called hyoshigi, which they clap together and yell "hi no yojin!" ("watch out for fire!") in a ritual one imagines has not changed much since it began all those centuries ago.


Civilian firefighters practice pumping river water to fight fires.

It's difficult to overstate how badly these fire prevention volunteers were needed in Edo. Filled with narrow, densely-packed dwellings built largely of wood and paper, the city was incredibly prone to fire, including the Great Fire of Meireki in 1657, said to have destroyed 60% of the city. Though each subsequent fire brought new safety measures, the city remained flammable as late as the 1900s. As the program points out, more than 100,000 people in and around Tokyo died following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake—and the majority of those deaths were due not to collapsing buildings, but the resulting fires, which lasted for days and destroyed nearly half the city.

With this history, it's no wonder Japan has such dedicated volunteer firefighters. However, the country's population is aging, and these civilian fire brigades are having trouble finding young, able-bodied volunteers. In an interesting twist, about 9% of the brigades surveyed in 2016 said their volunteers include foreign residents, and many more groups said they were open to the idea. With more visitors coming to Japan from abroad than ever before, having a multinational, multilingual volunteer firefighting force could be a literal lifesaver.

But it's not just professional and volunteer rescue teams who deal with disaster prevention: Japan's population as a whole has a high awareness of what do to during an earthquake, tsunami or other incident. This is thanks in part to Disaster Prevention Day, set up to commemorate the Great Kanto Earthquake and educate the population about what to do in case of emergency. Earthquake and fire drills are also regularly held in elementary schools, which means that Japanese learn what to do during a disaster from a very early age.


Volunteer firefighters are often first responders, and coordinate closely with professional rescue teams.


Host Peter Barakan learns about special rescue teams from expert guest Masayuki Kikuchi, a photojournalist who covers their activities.

Adults, on the other hand, might require a refresher course. At least, that may have been the idea behind a book full of disaster prevention tips distributed for free by the Tokyo metropolitan government in 2015. With an eye-catching yellow cover, slick design and even a manga about earthquake awareness, the book won several awards, and was praised for presenting difficult information in an effective, appealing way: no mean feat in an era in which we're so inundated by various forms of media and technology.

Technology, in fact, is another area where Japan has a proactive approach to disaster prevention. At present, for example, cell phones throughout the country are equipped to sound alerts when earthquakes or other disasters are about to hit. It will be interesting to see how special rescue teams and residents alike incorporate ever-evolving technology into rescue work—while at the same time employing those trusty hyoshigi wooden clappers.


On Plus One, Matt Alt joins the Japan Air Self-Defense Force Air Rescue Wing on a harrowing rescue operation, albeit simulated. 

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