Old silk mill gains new importance

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has decided to add the Tomioka Silk Mill, a historic factory in Gunma Prefecture symbolizing 19th-century Japan’s efforts to catch up with the industrialized West, to the World Cultural Heritage list. We welcome this decision as the mill sheds light on an important period in Japan’s modern history.

The designation of the mill and related facilities as the 18th World Heritage location in Japan — and the nation’s first modern industrial heritage site — has raised hopes in the city of Tomioka and Gunma Prefecture that the mill will become a popular tourist attraction. Priority should be given to preserving the buildings used for cocoon warehouses and a silk-reeling plant as well as the detailed records related to the mill and the modern development of Japan’s sericulture and silk industry.

The Meiji government built the mill in 1872 as a model factory by incorporating French technologies. It was later sold to a private company. The buildings combine red-brick and iron-sash construction — symbols of Western civilization — with pantile roofing and wooden timbers of Japanese origin.

In assessing the historical significance of the factory, the UNESCO committee said that it helped to introduce advanced technologies for silk thread production and that its new production method greatly contributed to the industrialization of Japan in and after the Meiji Era.

The first workers at the mill were young women, 15 to 25 years of age, recruited from former samurai families across the country. After learning how to make silk threads using a machine at Tomioka, some of the women taught these new skills at silk mills that subsequently opened in their native towns. Japan succeeded in improving the quality of silk threads by using technologies imported from France.

Raw silk was prewar Japan’s No. 1 export item. In the 1930s, about 80 percent of raw silk traded worldwide was made in Japan. About one-third of Japanese farming households were engaged in silkworm culture.

Still, the dark side of Japan’s silk industry should not be forgotten. It is said that when the Tomioka mill was operated by the government, its working conditions were relatively good. The employees worked for about eight hours a day and had Sundays off. They were also given an education.

But as privately run silk mills spread across Japan, poor working conditions at many sites became a social issue — including working hours late into the night, difficulty in getting days off, unpaid wages and deterioration of workers’ health.

The local governments, communities and academic groups concerned should collect as many related records as possible and put them in accessible and readable form. This would comply with the true spirit of UNESCO’s recommendation that Japan study the roles and working conditions of women workers and the social circumstances surrounding them.

If such research is carried out carefully and in detail, it will shed light on various aspects of Japan’s modernization and help deepen understanding of the roots of today’s issues such as the existence of “black” enterprises — which exploit workers by subjecting them to inhumane working conditions — and women’s social participation. Such research could help prompt improvements in the working conditions of today’s workers, including tens of thousands of foreigner interns who come to Japan officially to learn technical skills but are all too often exploited as a source of cheap labor and forced to work long hours for low pay in harsh conditions.

Katakura Industries Co., the last private business that operated the Tomioka mill, used it for silk production until 1987. The company deserves praise for maintaining the mill even after operations ceased until it was donated to the city of Tomioka in 2005. Today it is a difficult task to maintain the buildings, which are more than 140 years old. The central and local governments and communities concerned should work together to make the Tomioka mill quake-proof and safe enough for visitors so that its historical significance can be shared and passed on to future generations.