Spinning silk at the Tomioka Silk Mill

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“Year 5 of Meiji era”, reads the keystone above the entrance of the Tomioka Silk Mill. The silk spinning factory of Tomioka was built in 1872, in the fifth year of Japan’s sudden turnaround towards a modern industrialised state under Emperor Meiji. It was not only one of the first modern factories in Japan, but is also a prime example for the sharp growth of light industry in Japan in the following decades.

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Western architecture

Mr. Kondo, a German-language tourist guide (there are tours in English and other languages as well), points out the red bricks of the façade that look very western for a country that had, until the late 1860s, tried to suppress and control any contact with the Western world and continued its practically mediaeval lifestyle. “At the time of the founding of the Tomioka Silk Mill, they didn’t have cement yet in Japan”, Mr Kondo explains: They glued the bricks together with lime mortar and this construction was not strong enough to hold the roof. The building uses a traditional Japanese timber frame construction instead.

Modernization by all means

The decision, in 1868, to embrace Western life and technology, was sudden. The change of government is generally called the Meiji Restoration (referring to the restoration of the monarchy), but the effect of the new policies was rather revolutionary. Government ministers travelled to Europe and America to bring back new ideas and technologies (as well as instructors) and set to implement them as quickly as possible. For the modernization of the country Japan needed foreign currency, and therefore export goods. At that time Japan already had a well-developed silk production, based on cottage industry and small manufactures.

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The government was keen to increase the output with the help of new technologies and machines, and also to ensure a continuously high quality and reputation of the export silk by controlling the production. That’s why the Japanese government invited French silk specialists to build this first silk factory in Japan. Later on, the government also hired French engineers and female French instructors to live in Tomioka for a few years. France was eager to import both cocoons and raw silk after a silk worm epidemic in Europe had caused a severe shortage on the market.  Japanese workers were however at first reluctant to sign on at the factory when rumour had it that the French were drinking blood from glasses – red wine was still completely unknown then.

Silk production for American silk stockings

With the help of the French, Japan quickly increased its silk production and found a perfect niche in the world market in the early 20th century when demand for silk especially in the American market increased: silk stockings were en vogue, and they required high-quality silk which not many countries could provide.

The Tomioka Silk Mill was in operation for 115 years until 1987 when it had to shut down. After the closing of the factory the once prosperous town of Tomioka faded into oblivion, but with the listing of the remains of the Tomioka Silk Mill as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014, and its development into a major sightseeing spot, hopefully more tourists will come to visit.

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The main tourist site of the UNESCO Heritage are the remains of the Silk Mill itself, a rather large area including not only the spinning factory with the imported machines from France, but also several living quarters of the female workers, the French director and the French staff. A movie as well as demonstrations give a vivid insight in the silk production here during the 19th and 20th century.

Apart from the Silk Mill the World Heritage includes three more sites, which we did not visit: the Tajima Yahei Sericulture Farm, the Takayama-sha Sericulture school and the Arafune Cold Storage.

Is the Tomioka Silk Mill worth visiting?

Industrial history has only recently raised more interest in many countries. We find that exploring the industrial history of the 19th century is fun, not least because it is an historical era still rather imaginable for us. We also like the mix of Western influences and Japanese tradition in that period that must have been quite bizarre at times. People who don’t have a good grasp of Japanese history would definitely benefit from a guide, though. And don’t miss the white chocolate silkworm in one of the shops near the Silk Mill!

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White chocolate silk worms at a souvenir stall in Tomioka

How to get tho the Tomioka Silk Mill

The Tomioka Silk Mill is situated about 100 km northwest of Tokyo in the town of Tomioka in Gunma (totally unrelated to Tomioka in Fukushima, where the Fukushima nuclear reactor stands!)

From Tokyo, you have to travel to Takasaki (50 minutes by Shinkansen or 1 ½ hours by regular train) and then change to the private Joshin Electric Railway line for another 40 minutes to Joshu-Tomioka (Japan Railpass is not valid). The Silk Mill is a 15 minute stroll from the station.

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