• Kyodo

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The UNESCO World Heritage Committee recently decided to add the Tomioka Silk Mill to the World Cultural Heritage list as a result of strenuous efforts to preserve the historic building by its previous owner and the local community.

The red-brick building in the city of Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture, which was completed in 1872, became the launchpad of Japan’s modern manufacturing industry by achieving mass production of silk using proprietary technologies.

The UNESCO committee made the fateful decision June 21 during a meeting in Qatar.

Related sites that are part of the World Heritage listing include the Tajima Yahei sericulture (growing of silkworms) farmhouse in Isesaki, the Takayama-sha sericulture school in Fujioka and the Arafune cold storage facility for silkworm eggs in Shimonita.

Katakura Industries Co., the last private owner of the mill, spent a large sum of money to preserve the factory building after operations ceased in 1987 until it donated it to the city in 2005.

Hiroshi Tabei, 71, the last manager of the company’s section for preservation of the building, said he felt a great deal of pressure as well as a strong sense of mission after he was told by his superior that the company was responsible for protecting the historically and culturally significant building.

The mill has been successfully preserved thanks to local support involving the fire and police departments, City Hall, the chamber of commerce as well as other bodies and individuals, Tabei said.

On the day when Katakura Industries handed over the building to the municipal government, Tabei felt relieved but at the same time sad, realizing that it “no longer belongs to us,” he recalled.

The mill was called a “model plant” and old woodblock prints show women who appear proud to be employed at the modern factory.

While making the recommendation to give World Heritage status to the mill, the UNESCO advisory panel called for further surveys to be carried out regarding female workers at the mill on their role in technology transfer to the factory from the West, labor environments and social conditions at the time.

The registration of the mill as a World Heritage site is expected to promote studies on the mill’s contribution to Japan’s modernization, including women’s participation in society.

The central government placed the Tomioka mill and the three related sites on a tentative list for UNESCO heritage inscription in 2007 and made a formal endorsement in January 2013, noting that they helped mass produce high-quality silk, develop the silk industry worldwide and popularize silk.

Japan now has 14 UNESCO cultural heritage sites, including Mount Fuji, which was listed last year, and four natural heritage sites, including the Ogasawara Islands, a habitat for rare animals and plants about 1,000 km south of Tokyo that was listed in 2011.

The government is now pushing for further nominations that include old industrial facilities in eight prefectures, collectively known as the “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution,” for inclusion on the list of World Heritage cultural sites in 2015.

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