The Jobu Silk Road… A road leading to modernization and internationalization.
As people built, gathered around, and traveled the road, their gaze was turned to a new Japan.
The Tone-gawa River flowing between Joshu and Bushu.
This large river boasts the largest catchment area in Japan. Renowned as a river that often overflows its banks, it would change its course with each flood, and cause serious damage such as destroying fields and washing away people’s homes.
On the other hand, its great size encouraged the development of river transport. Berths were built at various locations on its banks, and goods traveled back and forth. Deposits of sandy soil carried from upstream had the benefit of being well-suited for cultivating mulberry trees, and mulberry fields were planted in the riverbed. These features formed the basis for a sericulture zone.
The sides of the Jobu Silk Road face each other across the Tone-gawa River, and are connected by the Tone-gawa River. “Bando Taro,” as the river was also known, served not to divide Joshu and Bushu, but rather to join them.
In addition to geographical conditions—namely the key role played by the Tone-gawa River—the historical background of Japan transitioning from an early-modern to a modern society contributed to the formation of the Jobu Silk Road. First, the country passed from the end of the Edo period to the Meiji Restoration. The Tokugawa shogunate, which had endured about 260 years, had collapsed, a new government was born, and Japan started down the path to becoming a new nation. These new times demanded modernization and internationalization. The Jobu Silk Road seized that opportunity. Joshu and Bushu already produced raw silk and silk fabric, and had social infrastructure such as silk markets. The foundations for the silk road had already been laid.
The gaze of the Jobu Silk Road was turned to the world. To obtain foreign currency and form a modern state, there was an urgent need to expand silk exports, taking the opening of the Port of Yokohama as an opportunity.
The earnestness and diligence typical of the Japanese people, cultivated throughout the Edo period, came to the fore. People pushed themselves to the utmost to catch up with the rest of the world. Tomioka Silk Mill, built by the Meiji Government, surpassed Western standards in terms of its massive scale. This reflected the desire of the people at the time to become a respected part of the international community.
The Meiji Restoration had begun, and Japan was just taking its first steps on the path to modernization. People at the time had a spirit of wanting to make Japan into a new country with their own hands.
From the time of the opening of the Port of Yokohama, the quality of Japanese silk for export had built an excellent reputation, but there were also some inferior mass-produced products in circulation. Therefore, Comte Sallier de La Tour, the Italian Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Japan and F. O. Adams, Secretary at the British Legation, undertook an inspection tour of sericulture regions from 1869 to the following year and encouraged the Meiji Government to build mechanized silk mills. At this time, Adams and his colleagues made an offer to the Meiji Government to provide foreign funding, but Hirobumi Ito and others in the government refused the offer and decided to create a mechanized silk mill (Tomioka Silk Mill) funded by the Japanese government. They adopted technology for mechanized silk reeling from overseas, but excluded colonial-style influence from the industry. They felt that, without autonomy and independence, there would be no technology transfer, and modern silk reeling would not become widespread.
Incidentally, when La Tour and Adams were conducting their inspection tour, they visited Yahei Tajima’s sericulture farm. Adams’ report contains the entry “‘Yane’ was the head of a house we visited…” “Yane” is thought to be “Yahe,” in other words, a reference to Yahei.
Through their mutual comings and goings, competition, collaboration, and cooperation, the people of Joshu and Bushu were involved in the silk road, and worked to achieve the modernization and internationalization of Japan.
The men who strove to establish Tomioka Silk Mill (see the section titled “Three great figures of Fukaya”) were from Fukaya, but they expanded their activities across the border between Joshu and Bushu, strengthening ties between the two provinces. For example, it is said that development of the cocoon market in Honjo started with Atsutada Odaka (a man from Fukaya and first factory manager of Tomioka Silk Mill) asking Senemon Moroi and his associates from Honjo to purchase raw cocoons. The opening of Honjo Station on the Nippon Railway in 1883 helped Honjo become a cocoon market boasting the largest trading volume nationwide. Silk mills were established in Honjo (13 companies at the peak), and large-scale sericulture farmers also began to appear.
Tsunehei Moroi, the grandson of Senemon Moroi, head of the Honjo cocoon market, was nominated as president of the Honjo Raw Silk Export Inspection Office at the young age of 16. He went on to work at brick manufacturer Nihon Renga Seizo KK and was appointed senior managing director. In later years, he established Chichibu Cement Co., Ltd.
Competing methods of sericulture were developed in various areas along the Jobu Silk Road with the goal of improving sericulture efficiency and producing high-quality silkworm eggs and cocoons. Methods such as Yahei Tajima’s seiryo-iku, Chogoro Takayama’s seion-iku, and Chogoro’s younger brother, Kuzo Kimura’s ippa ondan-iku were all the product of creative ingenuity, trial, and error. These methods were all empirically demonstrated. The developers themselves built sericulture rooms and training facilities based on the sericulture methods they had developed, or wrote about their methods in books. Rather than monopolizing their research results, they publicly disclosed them, and worked hard to train people to follow in their steps. The original purpose of Tomioka Silk Mill, built in the early Meiji period, was to serve as a model training factory, and it fulfilled its role of spreading technology for mechanized silk milling throughout Japan.
As silk-milling technology was introduced from the West and raw silk was exported back, new culture found its way to the Jobu Silk Road. One example was Christianity. The people of Shimamura (Sakaishimamura, Isesaki City), a community producing silkworm eggs, were pioneers in adopting the Christian faith and establishing it in their hometown. The spirit of the times was progressive and people were keen to absorb new things.
It is said that the spread of Christianity in Shimamura began in 1877, before the establishment of the Shimamura Church, but three years before that, Jo Niijima had returned from the United States, and the Annaka Church was established in 1878. Believers from the Annaka Church founded the Kanra Church near Tomioka Silk Mill.
The Jobu Silk Road offers clues to many things—the evolution of modern industry, the origins of a technology-driven nation, and the activities of people facing a new era.
Even within the framework of the silk industry, there are specialized fields such as silkworm egg production, sericulture, silk milling, dyeing, and fabric weaving. Technical innovation to improve quality took place in all these areas. Through processes such as logistics, commercial dealing, and export, raw silk and silk fabrics produced by the silk industry made their way to the world market, earning foreign currency and a solid reputation for “made-in-Japan” quality. This became a driving force in lifting Japan to the status of a modern state. Industrial interconnection and integration caused an industrial renaissance flowing from upstream to downstream. This occurred not only in manufacturing, but in developing human resources as well. It led to the discovery of talented individuals, bringing together diverse knowledge and skills.
The roots of modern industry—diversified today into areas such as light industry, heavy industry, and the information industry—are evident in the Jobu Silk Road. It was a source of knowledge and techniques.
From the standpoint of “regional rediscovery,” the areas of Southern Gunma and Northern Saitama connected by the Jobu Silk Road are “hometown heritage” that local people can be proud of, and this region is the birthplace of modern Japanese industry with Tomioka Silk Mill forming the nucleus.