Home Tomioka Silk Mill Facility Introduction

Learn history

Purpose and background of the establishment of the Tomioka Silk Mill
Tomioka Silk Mill is a model Silk-reeling factory established by the Meiji government in 1872 for Japan’s modernization. After terminating its isolation policy at the end of Edo period, Japan began to trade with Western countries. At the time, the most important export was raw silk. Due to increased demand of raw silk from the sudden increase of exports, raw silks were mass produced in a low-quality. There were demands from foreign countries to improve the quality of raw silk and to build silk mills with foreign investments. After the Meiji Restoration, the government promoted modernization of industries and technologies to achieve equal status with Western countries. The government thought that the export of raw silk would be most suitable to collect the funds necessary. However, since it was difficult to build factories with private capital at the time, the government decided to build government-operated model factories with Western silk-reeling machines to improve quality, increase production, and train engineers. There were three basic ideas to this model factory. The first was to introduce Western silk-reeling technology, the second was to employ foreign directors, and the third was to employ female workers from around the nation. This was to have the female workers return to their hometowns after learning and make them silk-reeling instructors. Frenchman Paul Brunat was employed under these basic ideas, and under his direction, the government-operated model silk mill incorporating Western technology (Tomioka Silk Mill) was established.
Reasons why Tomioka was chosen as the place of establishment
 Junchu Odaka, a government official in charge of the establishment plan of the Tomioka Silk Mill, investigated the regions of Musashi, Kozuke and Shinano with Paul Brunat and decided to built the mill in Tomioka, Kozuke, for the following reasons.

1.The sericulture in Tomioka region was flourishing and it could produce enough high quality cocoons, raw material of raw silk.
2.There was land available on which to build a mill complex.
3.There was a ready supply of fresh water from a nearby river.
4.Coal to power the engine was available in the nearby town of Yoshii in current Takasaki.
5.Local people agreed to build a mill complex directed by foreigners.
The evolutions of the Tomioka Silk Mill
Tomioka Silk Mill is a massive silk-reeling factory built by the government, and the Silk-Reeling Plant with a length of around 140 meters had 300 silk-reeling machines, making it the largest silk-reeling factory in the world at the time.  The construction of Tomioka Silk Mill began in 1871 based on the plans by a French director Paul Brunat. By July 1872, the main buildings had been completed, and the operations began on October 4. Trained female workers from around the country worked in the Silk-Reeling Plant where silk was reeled off of cocoons, and full-scale machinery silk reeling began.  After foreign directors left in 1876, it was operated only by the Japanese people. There had been times of financial deficit including the period operated by the government, but the raw silk with attention to quality was well received abroad. Once the original purpose to spread machinery silk-reeling and to train engineers was satisfied, the mill was sold to the Mitsui Conglomerate in 1893 as the state industries were sold off to the private sector. Later in 1902, it was transferred to the Hara Unlimited Partnership, and it received attention from mass production of high-quality raw silk in Minorikawa’s multi-row reeling machines and a unification of silkworm eggs. It became independent as Tomioka Silk Mill Co. Ltd. in 1938, but it merged in 1939 with the Katakura Silk-reeling and Spinning Co. Ltd. (current Katakura Industries Co. Ltd.), the largest manufacturing company of raw silk in Japan. Automatic silk-reeling machines were introduced after World War II, and the silk mill continued to thrive as a silk-reeling factory, but following the decline of the silk industry in Japan, it went out of operation in March 1987. Most of the buildings were well preserved by Katakura Industries Co. Ltd. after shutdown, and the whole complex was offered to Tomioka City in September 2005, it is now being preserved and maintained by Tomioka City.The main buildings were listed on the national historic sites (July 2005), National Important Cultural Property (July 2006), and the World Heritage List (June 2014). Moreover, in December of the same year, the Silk-Reeling Plant, West Cocoon Warehouse, and East Cocoon Warehouse became National Treasures.
Tomioka Silk Mill nowadays
Currently, Tomioka Silk Mill is owned, preserved, repaired, maintained and managed by the Tomioka City. It is opened to the public to utilize the silk mill with the purpose to tell the history of Tomioka Silk Mill, share its value as cultural property, and to have an awareness of the significance in passing down this important heritage to later generations. Tomioka Silk Mill Tours are mainly of its exterior, and because it is difficult to understand the history of 115 years in operation and its value as industrial heritage just by looking at its exterior, guided tours and audio guides are available. There is a 30 year plan for maintenance and utilization based on the preservation and repairs plan and the maintenance plan formulated in 200 Development of innovative sericulture technology reflected in the main buildings and manufactured articles.8 and 2012. This will be conducted with guidance and advice from a committee of specialists and through consultation with related institutions.
Ei Wada (maiden name Yokota)
Ei Wada was a daughter of Kazuma Yokota, a samurai in Matsushiro Nagano, who learned the techniques at Tomioka Silk Mill and played a key role as a trained female worker. She entered Tomioka Silk Mill in 1873 and enthusiastically studied the techniques of machinery silk-reeling. Afterwards she succeeded as an engineering director at the local Nishijo Silk-Reeling Plant (later Rokkosha). The memoirs of Ei Wada that told the story of her life at Tomioka Silk Mill written in 1907 were published as Tomioka Diary.