National | CHUBU CONNECTION

Campaigners fight to save derelict Mie silk mill but owner cites lack of cash

CHUNICHI SHIMBUN

One of Japan’s last surviving silk mills is rapidly falling into disrepair and could collapse despite a local campaign to save it.

The Kameyama Silk Mill Muroyama Factory in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, closed in 1995 and today the last surviving building at the site is all but derelict. Entry is forbidden.

It is the only surviving example of 32 mills modeled on the renowned Tomioka Silk Mill in the city of Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture, Japan’s first silk reeling facility. The Tomioka facility became a World Heritage site in June this year.

“The (Muroyama) building is in bad condition and it looks like it will fall down at any time. We should decide now if we want to preserve it or destroy it,” said Mikio Imai, 80, director of the Tomioka Silk Mill research institute, who visited the Muroyama site late last year.

“I hope they choose to save it because as the ‘Tomioka Mill of the West,’ it has high historical value,” he said.

The campaign to save the building has considerable public support. But the company that owns it has made no definitive plans to repair the facility, so its future remains uncertain.

The mills modeled on Tomioka and its technology included the Ogiwara Silk Mill in Akiruno, western Tokyo.

Japan’s silk industry suffered around the end of World War II, when demand rose for artificial fiber and cheap imported raw silk displaced the market for domestic silk.

The factories closed and the buildings were torn down.

The Muroyama factory dates from the start of the Meiji Era. Built by the Kameyama Silk Mill company, the facility processed about 15 tons of raw silk annually.

At its peak, the 30,000-sq.-meter site housed numerous buildings. The factory won a bronze award in the 1878 Paris Exposition, honoring it for the high quality of its silk.

When the Muroyama factory closed, local residents urged its operator to leave the front gate standing and a factory building built in 1903 intact.

The 625-sq.-meter building is made of wood and stands 10 meters tall.

Inside, it offers a surprising amount of space: The roof is supported by a truss instead of a central pillar.

The machinery was powered by a steam engine, so there is air ventilation in the “koshiyane” roof, a type of Japanese roof construction in which a small roof sits atop another.

The architects’ plans for the Muroyama factory are stored in the Yogo Archives Museum in Yokkaichi.

In the documents submitted to UNESCO for the evaluation of the Tomioka Silk Mill as a World Heritage site, the Cultural Affairs Agency also listed the Muroyama Silk Mill as the last surviving copy.

The Yokkaichi board of education and the Yogo archives preservation group visited the headquarters of the Kameyama Silk Mill at the end of June and urged the company to find a way to preserve the site.

However, a company representative said it was “unable to allocate much funding for its restoration.”

The situation is devastating to those who argue that the factory represents an important part of Japanese history.

“To local residents, this building is a symbol of modernization. I’m saddened at the thought that we might lose this building in our generation,” said Yasunori Ito, 70, vice chairman of the Yogo group.

Ito is a direct descendant of the founders of the Ito Silk Mill, which was eventually acquired by the Kameyama Silk Mill.

There was another factory modeled after Tomioka in Aichi Prefecture, the Nagoya Silk Mill in the Yanagihara district in Nagoya’s Kita Ward, but it has since been converted into an employee dormitory for another company.

The Tomioka Silk Mill was the first silk reeling factory set up by the government. Equipped with modern machines from France, the mill became a model factory for machine-reeling and its techniques were widely studied and introduced in other regions of the country.

It closed in 1987 and the owner, Katakura Industries Co. Ltd., was determined not to “sell, rent or tear down” the factory. In 2005 the company handed the factory to the city of Tomioka.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Sept. 8.

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