Tomioka Silk Mill is a symbolic presence on the Jobu Silk Road.
It was born from interaction with the world outside Japan and drove further interaction.
That history is now showcased as a legacy that has spread far beyond the region and transcended the ages.
Upon the Meiji Restoration, Japan set out to become a modern nation and join the international community. Tomioka Silk Mill created the opportunity and opened the door.
Tomioka Silk Mill was the only mechanized silk mill of its size in the world at the time. It was the pioneer in Japan of industrialization using modern equipment and became the cornerstone for the country’s development as a modern industrial nation. Its greatness came from connecting Japan to the world.
The fusion of Japanese and Western technologies is evident in the structures and facilities of Tomioka Silk Mill. The buildings such as the cocoon storehouses have a unique structure called “wood frame, brick construction” combining wooden frames with Western-style brick. Bricks were joined using shikkui plaster instead of mortar. As an adaptation to the humid climate of Japan, silk-reeling machines imported from France were the re-reeling type (a method where the raw silk is first reeled onto a small frame, then re-reeled onto a larger frame). Also, adjustments in height were made to match the physiques of Japanese women.
Furthermore, the mill featured advanced facilities based on Western technology such as Brunat engines (steam engines imported from France), 180 meters of sewage piping on the premises, and a steel water tank (made in 1874) drawing on shipbuilding technology with a capacity of approximately 400 tons.
Tomioka Silk Mill was one of the largest mechanized silk mills in the world at the time. The scale of a mechanized silk mill was expressed in terms of the number of basins for boiling cocoons and reeling filament from them. At the time, France and Italy—the major silk producing countries in Europe—had facilities with around 150 basins. By comparison, Tomioka Silk Mill had 300 basins—double the world standard. The silk-reeling hall with those basins was more than 140 meters in total length.
Initially, as the Meiji state advanced toward modernization, Japan had no major products for the international market except raw silk. There was no way to obtain foreign currency apart from relying on raw silk exports.
Through favorable turns such as winning an award at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873—the year after the mill opened—the silk-milling technology of Tomioka Silk Mill reached an internationally recognized level. Due to the growing acclaim, Tomioka raw silk came into increasing use in France, Italy, and other countries where the silk industry was already advanced. Japan was pulled into the modern world by a fine strand of raw silk. Tomioka Silk Mill built the foundation for Japan to become the world’s top silk exporter in 1909.
By supplying high-quality, inexpensive silk to world markets, Tomioka Silk Mill played the role of spreading silk culture and popularizing silk to a wider range of people all over the world. At the time, in Europe and the United States, silk was a luxury item that only a limited segment of the population could afford to wear. Tomioka Silk Mill contributed to breaking that barrier through technological innovation and other new approaches, making silk accessible to many people. From the middle of the Meiji period, the destination for raw silk exports shifted from Europe to the United States, further expanding the spread of silk culture to the world.
Tomioka Silk Mill began as a mechanized silk mill run by the Meiji Government in 1872. Later, management was transferred to the Mitsui family in 1893, then to Hara GMK, and Katakura Seishi Boseki after that. During this time, Tomioka Silk Mill continued to function steadily as a silk mill. Productivity was increased through technological innovations and capital investment, and in 1974 the mill achieved the highest product volume (over 370,000 kilograms) of any time in its history. The mill continued to lead the Japanese silk industry for 115 years until it closed its shutters in 1987. The silk-reeling equipment currently remaining in the silk-reeling hall is the most advanced type of milling machinery.
The miracle of Tomioka Silk Mill is that these buildings constructed for mechanized silk milling over 140 years ago are preserved in such good condition, appearing today as they did when they were constructed. There is no similar example in the entire world, and it is said there is no extant silk mill that compares to Tomioka Silk Mill. The mill’s condition is a testament to the efforts of Katakura Industries and others who were committed to preserving the massive old buildings for later generations, abiding by the principles, “do not rent, do not sell, and do not break.”
After the country emerged from isolation, Tomioka Silk Mill was the engine that lifted Japan to its position as the world’s largest raw silk exporter, and the mill continued it activities as a world leader on the front lines. Tomioka Silk Mill fulfilled its destiny of accompanying Japan on its path to internationalization, and was long a symbol of the relationship between Japan and the rest of the world. At Tomioka Silk Mill can be found the secrets to more than a century of transformation, and the mill continues its journey on today as a legacy for the future.