Weaving threads of prosperity


Japan’s oldest silk reeling factory in Gunma Prefecture was the torchbearer of its industrialisation


Rhonita Patnaik

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Published: Sun 19 Dec 2021, 5:38 PM

There are hardly any signs that give away how old the Tomioka Silk Mill is. The government’s efforts to restore the almost 150-year-old building and its designation as World Heritage Property by UNESCO, continue to be strong pillars for the silk mill.

Built in 1872, the silk mill was instrumental in transforming Japan into an industrial powerhouse. Located in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, the site is comprised of four buildings that showcase each phase of silk production. Visiting the mill, you can learn about Japan’s push towards swift modernisation in the 19th century.

Japan emerged from two and a half centuries of feudal rule in the Meiji era (1868–1912) dramatically reforming and industrialising to become a significant world power. The Japanese government facilitated rapid industrialisation by importing technology and inviting foreign advisors from overseas. The Tomioka Silk Mill or Silkool, established in 1872, is Japan’s first modern silk factory for processing silkworm cocoons into raw silk. The mill was created as a model plant by the Japanese government with the assistance of French experts in order to enhance the quality of silk produced in Japan by employing modern technology and providing better working conditions for its employees.

Currently, buildings are undergoing restoration. The factory is made up of a number of structures that have been meticulously conserved throughout time to closely resemble their original appearance. Three large brick buildings stand out as the most notable structures. One of them is the silk reeling mill where the silkworm cocoons were reeled into silk reels. The building now houses the relatively modern reeling machines used in the 1980s when the factory was closed. The other two buildings are the east and west warehouses where silkworm cocoons are stored. The town of Tomioka was chosen as the location for the silk mill for a number of reasons, including its proximity to natural cold storage facilities where silkworm eggs could be stored until needed, and the availability of natural resources such as coal in the area.

Explore the expansive grounds

The Tomioka Silk Mill consists of a reeling factory, cocoon storehouses, and industrial worker housing, with a total area of 53,000 sq. m. The significance of the site originates from the fact that it was one of the first large industrial facilities erected during the Meiji Restoration, in which Japan opened up to global commerce and adopted western-style institutions and industry.

Learn about the connections between Japan and France: Silk was a highly sought-after fabric in France at the time, so the mill employed a Frenchman, Paul Brunat, an experienced raw silk inspector who oversaw construction of the mill and became its first director. He also brought French seamstresses who taught the local girls the process of silk production. This symbiotic relationship between France and Japan serves as a solid foundation for Japanese-French ties.

Catalyst for women empowerment: Women were hired to operate the reeling machinery. It was believed that their petite hands were thought to be more adapted to the delicate task of retrieving silkworm cocoon threads and reeling them onto spools. The mill also presented a chance for women to play a more active part in the society. Young women flocked to the mill for favourable perks, eight-hour work days, and Sunday holiday. Their job provided them with on-site lodging, medical care, and night school where they could learn to read, write, operate an abacus, and sew. Many of these women would return home with these newly acquired skills and take on managerial jobs in their hometown's silk business.

World Heritage Site

Brunat and the other foreigners who had worked at the mill from the beginning left during the fourth year of operation. Following that, the government mill was run entirely by Japanese workers. Product quality was prioritised above all else, and while the mill did not make any profits for a few years, it was able to achieve its initial goal of enhancing the global reputation of Japanese raw silk. Similar machine-reel mills emerged in other parts of the country, manned by young women who returned to their hometowns after being trained at Tomioka. Having served its original purpose, the government sold the Tomioka Silk Mill to the Mitsui family in 1893 after which it was then passed on to the Hara Company in 1902. It amalgamated with the Katakura Silk Spinning Co. (now Katakura Industries) in 1939, making it the largest manufacturer of raw silk in Japan. The mill stayed at the forefront of the industry for more than a century, introducing new technology when needed and sustaining operations until 1987. Katakura Industries spent a significant amount of money preserving the Tomioka Silk Mill as a symbol of Japan's modernisation until it handed it to the city of Tomioka in 2005, pledging never to sell, lend, or destroy the ancient structures. Soon after, in June 2014, The Tomioka Silk Mill was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its pivotal role in establishing Japanese silk as a significant international trade commodity and establishing the textile industry as the country’s most important industry which it remained for many decades into the 20th century. Interestingly, some of today's top automakers have ties to the textile industry: Toyota began as a loom manufacturer, while certain Nissan engines are derived from automatic silk reeling machines.

In the vicinity of Tomioka Silk Mill, there are a variety of stores selling silk and mulberry plant products. A rich variety of products are available as great souvenirs of Tomioka including silk goods such as handkerchiefs and neckties, as well as soaps and cosmetics suing silk and sweets with mulberry leaves.

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