In his youth, Shinji Takahashi was a featherweight boxer. Today, working with his two younger brothers in a family legal practice based in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, he is a heavyweight lawyer and committed activist.

Takahashi is the head of a local and national campaign to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status for the Tomioka Silk Mill, one of Japan’s earliest industrial complexes. As chairman of the Tomioka Silk Mill Supporters Society, a registered nonprofit organization, he has garnered both hardcore community support and the ear of local officials.

“The mill closed in 1987 and all 600 employees were deployed to factories in other parts of Japan,” he said in his office before heading off to the mill to conduct a grand tour. “It’s now 138 years old, as impressive today as it was back then. We’re proud of its unique history, and want to preserve it for future generations.”

Tomioka is a small town near Takasaki. Takahashi’s ancestral history here dates back to the Edo Period, when the family owned vast tracts of land and silkworm farming was extensive.

“There was something about the land, the air, the water that encouraged silkworms to thrive. Also, it was relatively easy to transport the raw silk to Yokohama port for export.”

Japan began trading officially with the West in 1859 and within less than a decade — with the Meiji Restoration and Edo renamed Tokyo — raw silk was Japan’s No. 1 export product.

The main problem was a lack of quality control, which the new Meiji government was keen to address. Setting an early precedent for the industrialization of Japan at large, it was decided to introduce the latest technology from the West, employ foreign technical advisers, and train Japanese women as mill hands to go back to their hometowns and help raise the level of locally spun silk to meet world demand.

“Sericulture was a major industry in Japan from the eighth century,” Takahashi said. “It spread all over the country from Nara, which as the nation’s ancient capital was the end of the Silk Road from mainland Asia, the Middle East and Europe.”

In 1870, the government commissioned a young French engineer, Paul Brunat, to establish the first industrial spinning mill on Japanese soil. From the silk city of Lyon, Brunat had spent five years working for a foreign company in Yokohama. His fame was so great as a quality control specialist that he earned the nickname, in Japanese, “God of Silk.”

He chose the nearly 4,000-sq.-meter site on the edge of Tomioka because there was land, water and coal, and the surrounding area produced sufficient cocoons for the 64 tons of raw silk a year that the mill manufactured in its heyday.

Construction began in 1871; the mill began operating the following year. French-made imported silk-reeling machines were specially adapted for both the humid climate and the small hands of the female Japanese operators.

Soon it was working at maximum productivity, with 300 mill hands in each of the two huge spinning sheds (named East and West) at any one time. This made it the largest such facility in the world.

Working together with Atsutada Odaka, brother-in-law of Eiichi Shibusawa (“the father of Japanese capitalism”) who has been hired as the mill’s general manager, Brunat helped set the standard for the treatment of industrial workers in Japan. The women worked seven hours and 45 minutes a day, with Sundays off. There was even a medical facility that initially had a French doctor.

“It was not easy, of course,” Takahashi said. “Everyone in the town agreed that Paul Brunat’s 18-year-old wife was the most beautiful woman they’d ever seen. But recruitment was hindered by the rumor that the French drank blood. Seeing Brunat and his colleagues drinking red wine, local people assumed the worst.”

It helped that Odaka employed his own daughter as a mill hand — an inspired move that helped create trust and build confidence.

If the size of Brunat’s purpose-built wine cellar is anything to go by, a lot of wine was consumed by the pioneering French contingent. Among them was Auguste Bastien, who had come to Japan earlier to take part in the construction of the Yokosuka ironworks in Kanagawa Prefecture. Brunat commissioned Bastien to design the mill buildings in locally made red brick laid in a style known as Flemish Born, with imported metal-shuttered windows and traditional kawara gray-tiled roofing.

By 1876, the mill was run wholly by Japanese staff, with all the French staff having moved on or gone home after achieving their mission.

But even today, Brunat’s house stands preserved at the site, along with a dormitory for his French engineers, another for the French female instructors, and the clinic.

These buildings, together with the spinning sheds and dormitories equipped for the female mill hands, are included in a tour of the complex guided by local volunteers. There is also a small museum where women volunteers spin silk from cocoons by hand to show the process that the mill mechanized. A small shop is yet another attraction.

The factory was sold into private hands in 1893, and continued spinning silk until cheap imports from Asia began to erode profits and resulted in closure. It was designated as a national historic spot by the Cultural Agency in 2005 and elevated to national important cultural property the following year.

Tomioka Silk Mill was provisionally listed for World Heritage status more than a decade ago. But the waiting list is now long and extensive, and UNESCO officials have yet to visit. Takahashi is using the time to make the site ready for approval. “It costs ¥30 million annually to maintain the facility, and this year we are concentrating on roofing work. Next year, the brickwork.”

There is another improvement he has in mind, and with working drawings he is currently in talks with the mayor of Tomioka on how a new wall around the site, with improved directions and access, might be funded.

Initially the mill was hedged with trees and shrubs. After World War II, however, these were rooted out and replaced with high wall built of concrete blocks, topped in some places with barbed wire.

“We want to pull this down, build a lower, more user-friendly wall with red brick and railings, also landscape some of the open land within the site for a family park. While we welcome some 220,000 visitors a year, few are from abroad. We want the world to know we are here and promise a warm welcome,” he said.

Takahashi’s most recent move to promote Tomioka Silk Mill as a World Heritage site involves embracing a full-scale feature film based on a fictional account of the project’s inception. The book, published in 1997, is “Kawatare no Tsuchioto” (“The Hammer Sounds at Dawn”) by Sadao Tamura. The hammer refers to the mill’s construction in the earliest days of Japan’s modernization.

A script has been written and director Masamoto Sakurai is ready to start casting. Now all that is required is ¥300 million to bring it to the screen. The project already has an impressive array of backers in principle: these include the French Embassy, the Japan Sericulture Association, the France-Japan Association of Gunma, the city of Tomioka and various surrounding towns (Kanri and Shimonita), and the Gunma Colleges Association.

” ‘The Hammer at Dawn’ is the story of French spirit and the fruit of Japanese will,” Takahashi said. “The movie will help build a bridge of friendship between our two countries.”

The Tomioka Silk Mill Supporters Society was initially founded by 20 local poets who regarded the historic complex with admiration and affection. Reflecting the hard work of all concerned, it now has 1,461 members from some 59 different organizations and associations throughout Japan.

Takahashi said his role in life is to protect the community and enhance its well-being. “When I was a boy, I remember a terrible storm. After it had passed, only the bamboo beneath the branches of the zelkova were unbroken and unbowed. So I identify with this tree, embracing Tomioka Silk Mill as our greatest treasure.”

Tomioka Silk Mill: I-1 Tomioka, Tomioka City, Gunma Prefecture. Call (0274) 64-0005; fax (0274) 64-3181. For more information, visit the Tomioka Silk Mill for World Heritage Promotion Home Page at www2.city.tomioka.lg.jpworldheritage/en/index.html
The production committee for “The Hammer Sounds at Dawn” is based at the Takahashi Three Brothers Law Office, 2-1-1 Yachio, Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture. Phone (027) 370-6603; fax (027) 325-9936.

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