Dear Alice,

I've been living in Japan on and off for a few years now, and in the various places I've lived I've seen groups of senior citizens dutifully patrolling the streets. Just the other day, in my latest location, I encountered a similar patrol. One of the men was holding a pair of wooden sticks that he would bang together every now and then. I would really like to know what the heck that stick-banging does. I did ask, in my horrible Japanese, and as far as I could understand it has something to do with fire. Can you clarify?

Philip K., Kuki, Saitama Prefecture

Dear Philip,

That group is your local shōbōdan (volunteer fire corps). They were out on yomawari (night rounds) to remind residents to be careful of fire. Similar groups operate in virtually every Japanese city and town, although the frequency of patrols and the number of participants has dropped in recent years.

Most fire-corps patrols carry the sticks you saw, which are called hyōshigi. The drill generally goes like this: Clap the sticks twice (the sound of which is expressed as "kachin, kachin") and follow it with a call of "Hi no yōjin!" ("Watch out for fire!") Some groups throw in other fire-prevention slogans, such as "Māchi ippon, hi no moto!" ("A single match can start a fire!").

These are the same sticks used in sumo tournaments to call wrestlers to the ring, and in kabuki to signal key moments such as the start of the play or an actor's entrance. You only need hear these sticks once to understand why they are so widely used: They produce a high, loud and very arresting sound. A friend in America uses hyōshigi when she makes presentations about Japan to schoolchildren. Two good claps and she's got the kids' immediate attention.

I poked around on the Internet and learned that the history of volunteer fire corps is generally traced back to 1648, when an order was issued in Edo (now Tokyo) instructing residents to take turns patrolling at night to make sure everyone was being careful with fire. This wasn't the first time Japanese people had cooperated on the issue of fire, of course; communities were putting out fires together long before that. But since its designation as the de facto capitol of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, Edo had grown ever larger and more densely populated. With so many people living closely together in highly combustible wooden dwellings, fire had become a much greater danger. The Meiriki fire in 1657, for example, burned in Edo for two days and killed an estimated 100,000 people.

To learn more about shōbōdan, I paid a visit to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, which is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. I met there with Hiroshi Aoki, an official in the Disaster Management Division, who oversees policy and programs for the nation's volunteer fire corps.

Aoki explained that responsibility for fire-fighting has rested with local governments (shichōson) since 1947. Local fire stations maintain close links with the community, and there is at least one volunteer fire corps associated with every fire station in the country. The group in the photograph accompanying today's column, for example, represent one of the four volunteer corps affiliated with the Ushigome Fire Station in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. Fire stations provide training and support for the volunteer corps.

Unfortunately, participation in shōbōdan has been dropping as community ties weaken and fewer men work close to home. In 1965, more than 1.3 million volunteers were enrolled in local fire corps. By 2008, that number had dropped to 880,900. Although the number of women in shōbōdan has increased steadily in recent years, bringing new skills and energy to many groups, this hasn't made up for the overall fall in participation. The average age of volunteers has also increased because young people aren't attracted to the corps.

Part of the problem is that many people don't know what shōbōdan do. Night-time patrols are one of their more visible activities, but they are conducted only in the winter months when the air is dry and the risk of fire is at its highest. In a typical year, almost half of fatalities due to fire are clustered in the four months from December to March. The chief causes of building fires are kitchen burners, arson and cigarette smoking. The high prevalence of arson is another reason for yomawari, according to Aoki, who said the presence of patrols helps discourage those who would deliberately start fires.

But there is much more to shōbōdan than walking around banging sticks. Volunteers take an active role in fire-prevention education, visiting schools and the homes of elderly residents. They also assist in actual fire-fighting and rescues, and are trained for critical functions during major disasters, including distributing relief supplies and helping people to safety. This year, that role was brought to the public eye in a tragic fashion: 254 fire-corps volunteers lost their lives in the line of duty following the huge earthquake that struck northern Japan on March 11. Most of those who died were swept away by the tsunami while trying to close gates in the sea walls or escort others to safety.

"This year may be a turning point in the history of shōbōdan," Aoki told me. "On the one hand, the experience of March 11 underscored the importance of having trained citizen volunteers who can assist in times of disaster, and this may attract new members to the corps. On the other hand, the loss of life made it clear that improvements are needed to ensure the safety of volunteers, so this is an area requiring urgent attention."

To that end, the government has convened an expert panel to study the role of the volunteer fire corps in the Tohoku disaster and make recommendations for the future, particularly in the area of safety.

"One thing we have learned is that many of those who lost their lives didn't have sufficient information on how soon the tsunami would reach their location," Aoki told me. "So the panel is now looking at ways to improve the dissemination of information during a disaster."

The panel will make an interim report in March, around the first anniversary of the earthquake, and it will make its final recommendations next summer.