The Tomioka Silk Mill

Harvesting silk in Japan began during the 3rd century when China and Korea introduced the practice. Japanese silk industry reached its all time high during the 1930’s through the 1950’s.

Tomioka Silk Mill. | panda sensei

The techniques in creating Japanese silk was further refined to make the art distinctly Japanese and is now known to be of extremely high quality.

Tomioka Silk Mill in Gunma was established in 1872 by the Japanese government and is Japan’s oldest modern silk reeling factory. Tomioka Silk Mill was made to introduce modern machine silk reeling technology from France to Japan. In June 2014, the mill was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage historical site with all its buildings preserved and in excellent condition.

During the 19th century, after the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government was in a hurry to catch up with European countries in their modernization efforts.

Tomioka. | Boston Public Library

Japanese raw silk was the most important commodity to export. Japanese silk practically sustained the growth of Japan’s economy during that time. The demand for Japanese silk saw a decline in the quality of the silk. As a result, the national government decided to establish the Tomioka Silk Mill to act as a model for all Japanese silk manufacturers. The facility was equipped with the most sophisticated machinery to improve the quality of raw silk.

The construction of the Tomioka Silk Mill began in 1871 and was completed that same year. Operations began three months later with 150 silk reeling machines and about 400 women workers who operated the machines.

Tomioka Mill. | TANAKA Juuyoh

Only high- quality raw silk was produced at the mill. Ownership of Tomioka Silk Mill was transferred to the Mitsui Finance Group in 1893, in 1902 to Hara Company and in 1939 to Katakura Industries Co., Ltd, the largest silk reeling company in Japan. The Japanese silk industry yet again actively contributed to the growth of Japan’s economy during and after World War II.

The Tomioka Silk Mill contributed to more than just the Japanese economy, it was also the beginning of improved working conditions for women workers. Women who worked for the mill from all over the country were given a welfare package and worked no more than eight hours a day having Sundays off. The facility had everything from a clinic, dormitory, and were given an opportunity to learn how to read, write and sew during evening classes. The women soon played active roles in supervising silk-reeling in their respective hometowns. Tomioka Silk Mill was closed in March of 1087 and is now remains a historic site.