An Introduction to Japanese Industrial Heritage

Tomioka (9 February 2016)

We all know that Japan was the first country in Asia to be industrialised. However, perhaps because of a lack of sufficient promotion, Japanese industrial heritage does not seem very popular with tourists, especially Asian tourists. I think most Asians prefer pretty spots (i.e. good selfie spots), tasty food or fashionable things and places. Industrial places are usually neither pretty, tasty nor fashionable.

I decided to make a day trip to Tomioka, situated about 100 kilometres from Tokyo, because I wanted to become a little more acquainted with the story behind how Japan became so prosperous today. For in Tomioka, there is an old silk mill.

The Meiji Period (1868 – 1912) was perhaps Japan’s modern Renaissance cum Industrial Revolution all rolled into one. Before this, Japan kept mostly to itself. It was mainly during this period that the country decided to join the modern world and do whatever it would take to catch up with the West and industrialise.

Japan’s most important export at the time was raw silk. However, the silk produced was of low quality and this was apparently a result of inferior mass production methods aimed at meeting increasing demands. The Meiji government therefore decided to bring in Western silk-reeling technologies into the country.

In 1872, Japan’s first modern silk factory was established in Tomioka with the help of the French. It was meant to be a model factory where modern Western silk-reeling expertise could be brought in and engineers trained. Local women were employed in the mill and many would in time return to their hometowns and teach the expertise to other people. At the same time, the government also modernised working conditions in the factory.

Tomioka was chosen as the site of the silk mill for various reasons. It had good transportation infrastructure for sending the silk to Yokohama Port. There was sufficient land to build a large factory complex. It was close to natural cold storage facilities where silkworm eggs could be stored until needed. There was plenty of natural resources such as water for raw silk production and coal to power the factory available in the city or the surrounding area.

The city today however is this quiet little place, at least that was the case when I arrived there that late Tuesday morning. To get there I had to take a train to Takasaki and then transfer to the Joshin Railway to get to Joshu-Tomioka station. From the station, it was an easy 10-15 minute walk to the silk mill. The whole journey involved places I had never heard of before and that was somewhat exciting to me.

The silk mill is a complex of several buildings. As one approaches the mill, a massive red bricked building comes into view. This is the east cocoon warehouse where silkworm cocoons used to be stored on the second floor and the first floor was used as an office and workspace. It is today an exhibition venue.

East cocoon warehouse

There is also a west cocoon warehouse and its second floor was also used to store cocoon. Its first floor was for a period used to store coal.

What a warehouse in the mill would have looked like inside

The main action took place in the silk-reeling plant. The machines that were used in the 1980s before the mill was closed are still in there. The first machines brought into the mill were apparently ordered from Europe which were specially altered to suit the smaller frames of the Japanese workers.

Silk-reeling plant

How silk was produced before modernisation

Both the Japanese and French employees of the company slept on the premises. I could not help but notice though that the French employees seemed to live in less crowded conditions although of course there were a lot fewer of them. Nevertheless, both sets of dormitories were supposedly well-ventilated. The French employees I believe were employed as either managers or trainers and they left after the Japanese could take over the operations.

Workers’ dormitory across the yard where archaeological excavations appear to be ongoing

Dormitory for French female instructors hired to teach the Japanese workers how to operate the machines and produce silk

The Frenchman who came to Tomioka and directed the construction of the silk mill was François Paul Brunat. While he was director of the mill, he and his family lived on the premises in what is now known as the Director’s House or Brunat Mansion. After Brunat left, the mansion was converted into a dormitory for female workers and a place for education and leisure. There is a big hall in the building now which looks like a school hall.

Director’s House or Brunat Mansion

Director’s House or Brunat Mansion

After the Meiji government’s objectives were met, the mill was sold off to a private enterprise. The silk mill then changed hands a few times before ceasing operations completely in March 1987 following the decline of the silk industry in Japan. The site is now owned by Tomioka City and preserved for posterity.

I am not sure that I got a very clear picture of how Japan became the economic power that it is today from this visit alone. But I think two things were confirmed for me. First of all, both government and people must be willing to make massive changes, including changes that may be culturally or politically unthinkable, if they want the country to improve. But even then, the people’s will and determination to succeed may probably be the deciding factor in whether it does find that success. I think Japan succeeded in industrialising during the Meiji Period because the country at the time fulfilled those two factors.

In any case, whether I learnt anything or not, at the very least, I think this trip to Tomioka was definitely one quite off the beaten track and it made my time in Japan a lot more memorable.



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