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"Scent of Silk"

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image14080502.pngimage14080501.png"Scent of Silk"

Registration of Tomioka Silk Mill as a World Heritage Site

At a meeting of the World Heritage Committee held at Doha, Qatar on 21st June, 2014, "The Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Industrial Heritage" was formally registered as a world heritage site.
It was praised by the Philippine committee representative, who said that "as a site that incorporated French techniques locally, it demonstrates the preciousness of interdependence and global mutual understanding for creation."

Bringing Silk "Made in Japan" to Women all over the World

Japanese raw silk became known to the world from 1858 onwards, a period when Japan started to fully trade with other nations and become a part of the world economy. Japan entered into commerce treaties with five countries - United States, the Netherlands, Russia, United Kingdom and France.
During this period, a silkworm epidemic (pebrine) was spreading among raw-silk producing countries such as France and Italy.
As a result, 80% of silkworms died while the remaining 20% made cocoons from which silk was reeled off. Due to this situation, there was an acute shortage of raw silk produced in Europe.
In addition, the domestic situation in Qing (modern day China), which was a major exporter of raw silk, worsened due to war. Conflicts such as the Opium War (1840-42) followed by the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) meant that the production capacity of raw silk in Qing dropped dramatically.
In Europe, where demand for raw silk was high, the situation was difficult due to poor local harvests and the reduced production capacity of its once major importing source, Qing.
In this period, Japan was thankfully unaffected by pebrine and the silkworms raised there were healthy. European merchants got word that if they went to Japan they could buy good raw silk and silkworm varieties, and they soon made haste to come to Japan. With global affairs as they were at that time, European countries desperately needed the high-quality silk thread produced in Japan.

In February, 1870, the Meiji government decided to build the Tomioka Silk Mill as a state-run factory. The historical operations of this mill got underway for the first time on 4th October, 1872.
image14080503.pngCompared to traditional methods of producing silk by sedentary reeling, Japanese raw silk quality and production amounts improved markedly due to machine-reeling production employed at the Tomioka Silk Mill. Approximately six months after its establishment, Tomioka Silk Mill-produced raw silk was exhibited at the World Exposition held at Vienna in May, 1873, where it was awarded the medal for progress. Records show that the exhibit was a fine piece of raw silk produced by the 18 most technically-proficient female workers. Japan overtook China in the 1900s as the world No.1 exporter of raw silk. By the 1930s, the amount of Japanese raw silk exports grew to occupy 80% of the world market.

Silk was originally a high-quality fabric used only for the garments of certain privileged classes, but "Tomioka Silk" was not only high quality but also cheap, so it was worn by women all over the world in an abundance of silk products including clothes, stockings, and scarves. The time-honored pleasures of wearing silk have always been its smooth touch, warmth in cold weather and coolness in hot weather, as well as its beautiful dyeing qualities. Tomioka Silk made a significant contribution to the spread of silk worldwide.
Gunma Prefecture plans to use cocoons produced in the prefecture and to operate part of the Tomioka Silk Mill in the next two years in order to maintain it as a "dynamic heritage". The plan is to sell "Tomioka Silk" as a brand product once again.

Constructing the Tomioka Silk Mill

In order to encourage new industry, the Meiji government made the "promotion of raw silk exports and quality improvement" a key policy. From March, 1871, one of the world's largest silk mills, Tomioka Silk Mill was constructed. Despite its depth of 140.4m, width of 12.3m and height of 12.1m, it was a timber framed brick construction without pillars and used a truss structure. Costs of 240,000 yen (modern day financial equivalent: 54 billion yen) were incurred with this rush job, which was completed in July, 1872 and raw silk production got underway in the following October.
Natural light was relied on as it was the period before electric light, so operations could only be performed in the daytime. To achieve lighting adequate for handling fine thread, expensive sheet glass was imported from France and the whole of the wall surface was constructed in glass.

Japan at that time still did not possess the facilities or skills to manufacture sheet glass, so everything was imported from Europe.

Sheet glass has been used a lot in the field

The reason why Tomioka was selected as the base was due to its excellent cocoon raw materials, abundance of water, expansive land, and proximity to coal-fields for producing steam. The fundamental concepts behind this factory were:

  1. The introduction of western-style machine-reeled silk production.

  2. This technology was learned from foreign experts invited to Japan.

  3. Women were recruited from all over Japan for training, and these factory girls returned home after mastering the technology to become teaching instructors.

Thus, the government did not see the Tomioka Silk Mill as simply a mass-production factory, but as a mass-production system to spread high-quality raw silk production all over Japan.

Construction of the factory was overseen by the French engineer, Paul Brunat (1840-1908). The latest French-style machines adapted to the physique of Japanese women were introduced. Machine operation, pupa killing and cocoon cooking were all carried out with the use of steam. Cocoons were soaked in hot water to obtain raw silk. By doing this, the selsyn that adheres threads together melted and the threads entangled from the cocoons were spooled. The length of thread that could be taken from a single cocoon was up to 2,500m for longer examples.

Silk-reeling machines taking up the work of 300 people were installed in the silk mill, and the start of modern-day silk production in Japan was guided by the skills of a total of 404 factory girls (January, 1873). Factory girls gathered from all over the country diligently learned how to master silk-reeling machines from four French female teachers. These girls then returned to their hometowns all over Japan to become instructors at local factories, which supported the development of silk reeling machine factories. Managers to help the launch of the silkā€reeling industry started to appear, and wives and daughters were dispatched to Tomioka to become factory girls and master the new technology.
26 factories modeled on Tomioka Silk Mill were built all over Japan, and the silk-reeling industry became a mainstay of the Japanese export industry. The majority of these factories' products were exported, playing a major role in the acquisition of foreign currency and contributing to the modernization of Japan. It would be safe to say that raw silk underpinned the industrial development of Japan.

Imperial Household and Sericultural Institute

It is recorded in Nihon-shoki (the oldest chronicles of Japan) that the Imperial Household raised silkworms.
It is believed that Emperor Yuuryaku of the late 5th century (21st generation, reigned from 456-479) had the empress pick the mulberry leaves herself and encouraged sericulture. It is also stated that he gathered all the cocoons in Japan in one place. According to records of the soon-to-follow Emperor Keitai (26th generation, reigned from 507 to 531), it is written that all over the land men who do not plow fields will starve and women who do not spin to make yarn will be benumbed with cold. The importance of the emperor himself encouraging such action is mentioned.
Further, in the era of the Empress Suiko (33rd generation, reigned: 593-628), article 16 of the Seventeen Articles of Constitution (enacted in 604) states the following: "Employ the people in forced labor at seasonable times. This is an ancient and excellent rule. Employ them in the winter months when they are at leisure, but not from Spring to Autumn, when they are busy with agriculture or with the mulberry trees (the leaves of which are fed to silkworms). For if they do not attend to agriculture, what will there be to eat? If they do not attend to the mulberry trees, what will there be for clothing?

Agriculture and sericulture were matters of great consequence that decided the fate of the nation. To rule the nation, the Japanese Emperor and Empress paid great consideration themselves to agriculture and sericulture and were careful to act as a role model to the people. Subsequent events relating to this are unclear, but the next clear historical evidence is the beginning of silkworm raising by Empress Shoken (Imperial princess of Emperor Meiji) in 1871. With the opening of the Yokohama port in the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate, raw silk and sericulture became important export items. The prosperity of sericulture and silk reeling pushed the modernization of Japan, which prompted Empress Shoken to revive the ancient Imperial Household tradition of silkworm raising. Four girls skilled in sericulture relocated to the Imperial Palace as servants.
Empress Dowager Eisho and Empress Shoken visited the Tomioka Silk Mill together on 24th June, 1873, when their royal highnesses bestowed each and every factory girl with a fan made of golden pawlownia wood and adorned with the Imperial crest.

This act was continued by Empress Teimei (Empress of Emperor Taisho) and Empress Kojun (Empress of Emperor Showa).
From Meiji to Taisho and Showa, Japan was striving towards modernization. Supporting this was sericulture and silk reeling, and encouraging and driving it on was successive generations of Empresses who raised silkworms at the Imperial Palace.


NISHIKIE = Colored woodcut 1872

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) worked toward the financial relief of the sericulture industry in 1865. During this period, many silkworms perished as a result of the pebrine disease.
IEMOCHI TOKUGAWA of the Edo Shogunate of Japan presented Napoleon the third, Emperor of France, with a gift of silkworm eggs. For research purposes some of these eggs were shared with Pasteur, who gained lots of clues from them.
In the course of his research, Pasteur collapsed from a cerebral stroke in 1867 and the left side of his body became paralyzed. But he pinpointed that pebrine was an infection of a protist called nosema apis on silkworm eggs. This cleared the way to preventing the disease.


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