A Visit to Tomioka Silk Mill, a World Heritage Candidate, and Its Vicinity


A Visit to Tomioka Silk Mill,
a World Heritage Candidate, and Its Vicinity

After about an hour’s ride from JR Takasaki Station on the local Joshin Dentetsu Line, which was opened in 1897, the train finally arrived at a quiet town in the western part of Gunma Prefecture. Here I found an important legacy of the dawn of modern Japan and some picturesque archetypal landscape.

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Tomioka Silk Mill: The Beginning of Modern Japan

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The East Cocoon Warehouse on the right and Brunat’s residence beyond

 Paul Brunat, who supervised the mill’s initial operation, lived in this house.

Paul Brunat’s Enthusiasm for the Project

The Tomioka Silk Mill is located about 15 minutes on foot from Joshu Tomioka Station on the Joshin Dentetsu Line. It was founded in 1872 as Japan’s first state-run silk-reeling factory in line with the Meiji government’s twin policies, aimed at the modernization of Japan, of “building a wealthy and militarily strong country” and “boosting production and developing industry.”
     The Meiji government hired the Frenchman Paul Brunat (1840–1908), who was then in his early thirties, to supervise the construction and initial operation of the mill. As well as bringing engineers from overseas and importing machinery to be used in the factory, Brunat adopted French-style management methods, including Sundays off, eight working hours a day, and dormitories for workers. The silk-reeling machines were specially ordered to match the physique of Japanese women workers and the humid climate in Japan. Brunat clearly tackled the project with much thoughtfulness and enthusiasm.
     The factory buildings are a blend of Western and Japanese craftsmanship, with Western-style timber-frame brickwork and Japanese-style tiled roofs and mortar joints. The French-style brickwork, which is considered to be the most beautiful, consists of rows of alternating stretchers (the side of the brick) and headers (the end of the brick). This so-called Flemish bond style, which reveals Brunat’s highly aesthetic sense, creates a tasteful pattern on the walls and explains why the buildings look so elegant.

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