Japan: Gunma Prefecture, Latest World Heritage Cultural Site – Tomioka Silk Mill

Entrance to Tomioka Silk Mill

Entrance to Tomioka Silk Mill

UNESCO, which stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has been maintaining a list of World Heritage Sites since 1972. To be considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place (such as a forest, mountain, lake, island, desert, monument, building, complex or city), must represent an “outstanding universal value,” and must also meet at least one of 10 criteria such as “representing a masterpiece of human creative genius,” “containing exceptional natural beauty” or “being an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement.” To date, there are more than 1,000 sites all over the world which are included on the UNESCO list.

Japan has had 17 sites included on the World Heritage List since the compilation of this book and with the addition of the Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites, the number currently stands at 18.

Located in the city of Tomioka in Gunma Prefecture, the Tomioka Silk Mill is Japan’s oldest modern model silk reeling factory. Built by the Meiji government in 1872, the factory represents the country’s efforts to update its methods of traditional silk production and move it into the modern industrialized world.

Raw silk was the most important export and sustained the growth of Japan’s economy during the Meiji restoration. However, during this boom the Japanese silk industry began to sacrifice the quality of its silk for quantity, which impacted the country’s reputation as a raw silk manufacturer. Consequently, the national government decided to establish the Tomioka Silk Mill as a model facility equipped with the most sophisticated machinery, in an effort to improve the quality of raw silk.

When the factory began operations, there were 150 silk reeling machines and 400 female workers who operated the machines in the mill. Although Tomioka Silk Mill produced high-quality raw silk which was valued overseas, the business was always operating in the red. Even after reducing costs, they continued to suffer from chronic deficits. As a result, the government decided to privatize Tomioka Silk Mill and transferred its business to several groups/ industries beginning with the Mitsui Finance Group in 1893. It continued this way until March 1987, when the Tomioka Silk Mill was finally closed.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee registered the Tomioka Silk Mill and related sites on its list on June 21, 2014, stating that the sites in Gunma Prefecture, “marked Japan’s entry into the modern, industrialized era.”

The number of visitors to the mill went up substantially after the government decided to recommend the site to the World Heritage list in 2012 and those numbers will probably continue to grow given the site’s designation. But due to conservation concerns, the complex can only take about 5,000 visitors per day so do plan in advance.

If UNESCO Heritage sites spark your curiosity, Tomioka City is just over two hours by train from Tokyo. You can catch the Joetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Takasaki Station where you can transfer to the Joshin Dentetsu to Joshutomioka Station.

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Raw silk from silk worms

Raw silk from silk worms

Office area

Office area

Wood block print of the silk mill

Wood block print of the silk mill

Special "sweets" prepared for the mill's recognition as a World Heritage Site

Special “sweets” prepared for the mill’s recognition as a World Heritage Site

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Chocolate solk worm

Chocolate silk worm

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