The historic Tomioka Silk Mill in Gunma Prefecture and its related facilities are expected to become UNESCO World Heritage sites next month.

The redbrick factory from the Meiji Era will be the 18th World Heritage property in Japan if UNESCO officially accepts its endorsement by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, or ICOMOS, at the World Heritage Committee meeting from June 15 to 25 in Doha, Qatar.

Here is some information about the silk mill’s history.

What are the sites being endorsed by ICOMOS?

The Tomioka Silk Mill will be the first industry-related heritage site in the nation. ICOMOS said the mill complex played a significant role in innovating the Japanese silk industry at the end of the 19th century.

The recommendation includes the mill, the former residence of silkworm egg farmer Tajima Yahei, the Takayama-sha Sericulture School and Arafune Cold Storage, which was a repository for silkworm eggs. It is the only factory built by the Meiji government to be preserved in nearly its original form, according to the Tomioka Municipal Government.

The government decided to officially recommend the four sites to UNESCO in 2012.

Churches and castles often make the World Heritage list, but UNESCO started putting more emphasis on industrial sites in the 1990s, including the Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila in Mexico in 2006, and the Bahrain pearling trail in 2012.

When was the mill built?

The mill was built in 1872. It is Japan’s oldest modern silk reeling factory and is a symbol of Japan’s industrialization in the 19th century.

Silk became one of the nation’s most important exports after the Tokugawa shogunate dropped its policy of isolationism in 1854. Demand for Japanese silk surged after European silkworm stocks were ravaged by disease and Chinese silk exports were crimped by political instability in China.

According to the Japanese Association for Conservation of Architectural Monuments, demand was so high that silk accounted for over 80 percent of Japan’s exports in 1863. But that astounding figure ended up compromising its quality as demand surpassed supply, damaging the reputation of Japanese manufacturers.

After the Meiji Restoration in 1867, the government embarked on a modernization drive to catch up with the West. As part of its business strategy, the government built the Tomioka Silk Mill to serve as a model facility for quality improvement. This involved introducing state-of-the-art machinery from France.

How was the town of Tomioka chosen?

The Meiji government commissioned Paul Brunat, a silk inspector at the Yokohama office of Lyon-based wholesaler Hecht, Lilienthal and Co., to find a site for the model silk mill in 1870. Brunat picked Tomioka because the town already had a booming silk industry and immediate access to such nearby coal mining towns as Takasaki and Yoshii, which would provide most of it energy needs.

What are the buildings like?

The buildings were designed by Auguste Bastien, a Frenchman who was involved in building the Yokosuka Ironworks. The factory occupies about 5.5 hectares and consists of about 120 buildings, including cocoon warehouses, a boiler room, buildings for cocoon-drying, silk-reeling, and re-reeling, plus dormitories and an official residence for the French employees.

The buildings were built in a mix of Japanese and Western styles — framed with wood, walled with red bricks and roofed with traditional Japanese tiles.

Its filature — where the spinning was done — occupied about 1,680 sq. meters and was 12.1 meters high, making it one of the largest in the world at that time. It was equipped with 300 reeling basins, overshadowing the Maebashi Silk Filature, which had 12, and the Tsukiji Silk Filature, which had 60, according to “Technology Change and Female Labour in Japan,” published by the Japan External Trade Organization.

How was the plant run?

The plant had more than 400 female workers who were guided by French engineers brought in by Brunat. But the government at first had a hard time recruiting local women because of a rumor that foreign engineers would suck out their blood. The head of the factory, Atsutada Odaka, had his daughter, Yu, put to work at the mill in order to squelch the rumor.

Trained by French experts, the raw silk produced there won a prize at the 1873 Vienna World Exposition, and the Tomioka mill became known worldwide. Some of the women passed what they had learned to privately owned silk factories across Japan after leaving Tomioka.

What were the working conditions like?

Despite the sweatshop descriptions that crop up in the 1925 novel “Joko Aishi” (roughly, “the sad history of female workers in spinning factories”), the workers at Tomioka seem to have been treated relatively well by the management.

According to the Japanese Association for the Conservation of Architectural Monuments, they worked about eight hours a day and had Sunday off. The factory had two French doctors and eight hospital rooms, and also covered the workers’ medical expenses, food and lodging.

Was it making a profit?

Not really. The factory was constantly in the red partly because the salaries of the non-Japanese, including Brunat, were high. It is also said that the turnover rate was high, which often left the factory with a shortage of skilled labor.

In 1876, the factory started generating a surplus partly because all the high-salaried foreigners left at the end of 1875.

When did it become private?

To upgrade the quality of the raw silk and manage the factory more efficiently, the government sold the mill to the Mitsui conglomerate in 1893. Ownership was then transferred to Hara Co. in 1902 and then to Katakura Industries Co., the largest silk reeling company in Japan.

The Tomioka Silk Mill contributed to the economy during and after World War II but was closed in 1987 as the use of kimono plummeted and cheaper silk started flowing in from China following the normalization of diplomatic relations with Japan in 1972.

In 2005, the government designated Tomioka Silk Mill as a historical site and transferred it to the city of Tomioka.

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