Tomioka, A Silk Farming Complex Revealed

In 2014, UNESCO added an incredible silk farming complex to its world heritage list. It is the only location in Japan where a Meiji-era industrial production remains perfectly preserved. The visit is well worth a detour.
Four sites, corresponding to the different steps in the production of raw silk, comprise the complex: the Takayama-sha school for sericulture, founded in 1884 to spread knowledge; the Yahei Tajima sericulture farm, a magnanery with a tulle-tiled roof (for ventilation) that was built in 1863; the Arafune refrigeration warehouses, where silkworm eggs were stocked in temperature-controlled caves, constructed from 1905 to 1914; and finally, the Tomioka silk-spinning mill created in 1872.
Each of these sites in itself constitutes a place of research and development. The group as a whole testifies to the entry of Japan into the modern industrial age, illustrating not only the precocious and obviously successful transfer of silk farming techniques from France to Japan, but also the development of a uniquely Japanese industrial architecture that integrates unfamiliar elements.
The techniques of sericulture and silk-spinning made their way into Japan through China around the birth of Christ. France had to wait until the 6th century. Its production held a sacred character. Kaiko, the Japanese name for the silkworm, was never pronounced without the honorific prefix “o-“. Across the centuries, sericultural regions developed; among them, the region of Gunma (northwest of Tokyo) particularly prospered during the Edo era (1603-1868). It was here that Tomioka was founded.
Control and inspection of silkworms under a microscope. Photo credit: Gunma Librairy.
Around 1840, an epidemic decimated silkworms across Europe, and sericulture, begun in France, declined dramatically. Demand for silkworms turned towards Asia – to China, certainly, but also to Japan. A large quantity of raw silk was exported to Europe, but the huge demand led to the proliferation of many inferior materials as well as to the appearance of manufacturers with dubious production techniques.
In this context, the astute, young Meiji government (1868-1912) developed an integrated system to control and elevate the quality of silk production. They decided to call on French savoir-faire, particularly from Lyon. Lyon and its environs were the site of the most important silk producers in Europe, and so French engineers were recruited from there. Machines and silkworm eggs were also imported, and the state-sponsored spinners opened in 1872.
Traditional Japanese sericulture. Credit: Gunma Librairy.
Their reputation for unrivaled quality grew quickly, and Japan became the leader in raw silk export by 1910, notably to the French and Italian markets. By the 1930s, raw Japanese silk held 80% global market share.
The complex never stopped being the focus of R&D. Two major advancements must be mentioned: on one hand, the production and spread of excellent silkworm hybrid species; on the other, the creation of automatic reeling machines in 1952. These techniques in sericulture and spinning remain pillars of global silk production to this very day.
Despite its venerated reputation, the complex suffered chronic deficits, and its privatization in 1893 only postponed its fatal destiny. The school was shuttered in 1927; the warehouses of Arafune, in 1935. And in 1987, the Tomioka spinning mill definitively ceased production, ending the final chapter of a 115-year story of exceptional silk.
Cover Image : c. 1872 On the frontispiece of the original image, we read a poem wrote by the Empress Shôken during her visit to Tomioka silk-spinning mill. She expressed her expectations regarding the Tomioka plant, a sign of opening up to the world. Credit: Asataka, Gunma Librairy.