Discover Japan at “Tomioka Silk Mill”, a World Heritage Site

“Tomioka Silk Mill”, the start of Japan’s modernization

Color woodblock print
Nishikie or color woodblock print depicting the reeling factory just after its start of operation
Tomioka City Museum FUKUZAWA Ichiro Memorial Gallery

The Tomioka Silk Mill which started operating in 1872 was the first government-run model factory in Japan. It was created to make Japan wealthy enough to equal other advanced countries of the world. The buildings, including a reeling factory, cocoon storehouses and residences, stand on a large plot of land measuring 53,738 square meters. The Meiji government was pushing forward industrial modernization and acquiring foreign currency through the mass production of silk, which was Japan’s biggest export at that time, by introducing Western-style silk reeling machines.

Hired to supervise the establishment of the factory was a Frenchman, Mr. Paul Brunat. According to Mr. Robuchon, “A French supervisor was hired because silk fabric production had flourished in France at that time and they had excellent silk-reeling technology. In addition, the sericultural industry in Europe at that time was in a catastrophic state due to the spread of a disease among silkworms and France was in need of high-quality silk made in Japan. Thus Japan and France had an interdependent relationship. The Tomioka Silk Mill is a symbol of the very precious heritage of Japanese-French relations.”

Mr. Damien Robuchon
Mr. Damien Robuchon, a tour guide of the Tomioka Silk Mill
Storehouse of cocoons
Storehouse of cocoons, the raw materials of silk
Automatic reeling machine
Automatic reeling machine preserved inside the reeling factory

The reeling factory where silk was reeled from cocoons was a large building, measuring 140 meters long, and housed 300 French-style reeling machines at the outset. In order to achieve a bigger workspace, a “truss structure”, which did not need pillars to support the beam, was used. This construction method did not exist in Japan at that time. Currently an automatic reeling machine, installed in the 1960s, is preserved there.

The house of Paul Brunat
The house of Paul Brunat

The house where Paul Brunat lived with his family resembled a colonial raised house surrounded by a verandah. It was later used as a night school for young women working at the factory and traces of this past are still evident.

The Tomioka Silk Mill contributed to much more than just industrial development, it was also the start of better working conditions for women. Young women who came to work at the factory from all over Japan were provided with a welfare package, worked no more than about 8 hours a day and had Sundays off. The property had a dormitory and clinic and the young women were able to learn sewing, reading, writing and abacus at night school. These female factory workers went on to play an active role as supervisors in the silk-reeling industry in their hometowns which led to improvements in the working conditions and status of female factory workers.

The highlight is the architecture, made from the combined knowledge of both France and Japan.

Timber-framed brick buildings
Timber-framed brick buildings

The buildings of the Tomioka Silk Mill were designed by French draughtsman Auguste Bastien. The buildings adopted a method called “timber-framed brick construction” which involves laying bricks on a timber frame. However, bricks did not exist in Japan at that time and therefore tile makers made them with their kilns.

In addition, the “Flemish bond” method was used, where the long and short sides of bricks are alternately laid, giving both beauty and durability to the building. The Tomioka Silk Mill is the only place in Japan where timber-framed brick buildings remain in such pristine shape to this day.

Timber-framed brick buildings

Mr. Robuchon says, “By combining the technology of Japan and France, they were able to build a very robust, spacious and practical factory. While the management of the silk mill changed several times throughout its history, it was able to be continually used for the same purpose of silk production. This is rarely seen in the world.”

The Tomioka Silk Mill started operating in 1872 and continued to function as a silk-reeling factory for 115 years until it ceased operations in 1987. Even after it closed, the mill has been kept as it was in good condition thanks to the effort of local businesses and people. It was highly rated as a industrial heritage site of immense value because of its role in communicating the history of the modernization and economic and industrial development of Japan.

Mr. Robuchon is also fascinated by the fact that trade between Japan and other countries started here, leading to the development of Japan’s manufacturing technology. He boasts, “The Tomioka Silk Mill has a unique culture and history that can only be discovered here. If you want to know the origin of how Japan came to be a world leader in cutting-edge technology, please come visit us.”

Tomioka Silk Mill

Opening hours: 9:00 am-5:00 pm (Last admission at 4:30 pm)

Address: 1-1 Tomioka, Tomioka City, Gumma Prefecture, Japan

Phone: 0274-64-0005

Guides available in English and French (Reservations required)

 

Demonstration of the French-style reeling machine (Wednesdays)

10:00 am – 11:30 am, 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm

 

Demonstration and hands-on experience of “Zaguriki”, the traditional silk-reeling machine (Saturdays and Sundays, national holidays)

Apr-Nov: 9:30 am -12:00 pm, 1:00 pm -3:00 pm

Dec-Mar:10:00 am – 12:00 pm, 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm