A Look at the Population of Silk Workers

Figure 2: 上州富岡製糸場之図 (by 一曜斎国輝), Meiji Period. National Diet Library.

As mentioned previously, the textile industry in Japan expanded greatly during the Meiji era due to technological advancements, and eventually Japan became the largest supplying country of raw silk in the world.[1] In order to support this booming market, the industry had employed a staggering number of 625,309 employees with the dexterity to work with raw silk.[2] However, upon closer look at the population of workers, it can be understood that this field of work was particularly gendered. Although men did also work in the industry, with 32,500 men working in the field, the remaining 593,809 of the 625,309 estimated workers were women, suggesting that the primary engine behind this industry at the time was female labor.[3] However, beyond just looking at the numbers, it is crucial to understand both the context of the times and how this worker population developed.  It can be said that this population was deliberately cultivated by the industry using potentially what could be considered opportunistic methods of scouting labor. Girls of a young age were often desired for their sharp eyesight and nimble fingers and were often recruited for these attributes.[4] However, these were not the only reason that young girls were targeted for silk labor work. They were also targeted due to their perceived passivity in relation to their social position as children of a family.[5] Recruiters from silk mills would often approach the families of young farm girls and would offer them prepayment of a few months in advance in exchange for signing a contract, and according to Molony, essentially making them akin to “indentured laborers” for the silk mills in question.[6] Some young farm girls, however, were the ones to initiate this situation, and this will be discussed in greater detail in a later section that brings up the issue of active agency of these female silk workers.

To gain a greater understanding of these silk workers, it is essential to get a closer look at what their lives were actually like by analyzing what the average daily work life of one of these silk laborers might have been. Unlike what most silk workers were promised, i.e. reasonable and attractive working conditions, the reality of these silk mills was often referred to as quite the opposite. To begin with, the work schedule of a silk worker was notoriously long and tough. Below is a sample of a typical work schedule, this one being from a factory in the Nagano Prefecture in 1900:[7]

 

Rise: 5:15 AM

Work: 5:40 AM

Breakfast: 7:00 AM

Work: 7:15 AM

Lunch: 11:30 AM

Work: 11:45 AM

Supper: 5:00 PM

Work: 5:20 PM

End of Work: 9:00 PM

Bath until: 10:30 PM

 

This schedule measures in at around 14.5 hours, and days for these workers typically were either slightly shorter or longer than this based on the factory and season. An interview from a woman named Hori (Takai) Toshio who worked in these mills also detailed her hours of work at the mill and the type of work she was responsible for:

All I got to do was clean up waste pieces of thread. For twelve hours a day, from 6:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M.—with thirty minutes for lunch and fifteen-minute breaks at 9:00 A.M. and 3:00 P.M.—I was stating the following: doing standing or walking and collecting leftover pieces of thread. No matter how much I collected,
there was always more that would fall from the machines. My legs became stiff, my feet were swollen, and I would be stumbling around. Nevertheless, sitting or resting during work hours was not permitted, so I was constantly in tears, just trying to hang on. And for the whole year, I was ridiculed as nothing but a kid. So that whole year was filled with painful and embarrassing moments.[8]

Several girls experienced a similar experience, however, many young farm girls were unaware of these conditions before signing their contracts due to the fact that very few of the older sisters and girls from their regions had actually been unable to return to tell of these working conditions and the discrepancies in their pay, subsequently allowing for recruiters to further deceive more girls and exploit them for their labor.[9] A survey conducted in 1927 of 21,852 female workers showed that 62.8 percent of the workers were recruited (with only 5.6 being introduced by family), further proving how the set-up of having girls work far from home, and keeping the conditions essentially a secret, helped recruiters consistently reel in more laborers for their factory work.[10]

Accommodations for the workers of these factories were also generally poor. Many dormitories consisted of room for 10-20 girls per shift and some rooms only had one mat for two persons.[11]  This act of sharing unclean beddings resulted in the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis and also facilitated in the spreading of lice amongst the workers in the factories.[12]  There was also a lack of chairs, meaning that women could not relax even during breaks. In regards to salary, despite often being promised around sixty sen a day, most only received eighteen to twenty a day (the aforementioned Hori only received thirteen sen a day at one company), and because they had to pay back their dept for the prepayment that was given to their family, most girls agreed to contracts that further deducted their monthly pay.[13]

 

[1] Liao, “Population, Resources and Female Labor in the Raw Silk Industry of Nagano in Meiji Japan,” p. 28.

[2] Liao, “Population, Resources and Female Labor in the Raw Silk Industry of Nagano in Meiji Japan,” p. 28.

[3] Liao, “Population, Resources and Female Labor in the Raw Silk Industry of Nagano in Meiji Japan,” p. 28.

[4] Liao, “Population, Resources and Female Labor in the Raw Silk Industry of Nagano in Meiji Japan,” p. 29.

[5] Molony, “Activism Among Women in the Taisho Cotton Textile,” p. 223.

[6] Molony, “Activism Among Women in the Taisho Cotton Textile,” p. 223.

[7] Yamamoto, Ā nomugi tōge: aru seishi kōjo aishi, cited by Liao “Population, Resources and Female Labor in the Raw Silk Industry of Nagano in Meiji Japan,” p. 29.

[8] Loftus, Telling Lives: Women’s Self-Writing in Modern Japan, pp. 89–90.

[9] Liao, “Population, Resources and Female Labor in the Raw Silk Industry of Nagano in Meiji Japan,” p. 29.

[10] Liao, “Population, Resources and Female Labor in the Raw Silk Industry of Nagano in Meiji Japan,” p. 29.

[11] Liao, “Population, Resources and Female Labor in the Raw Silk Industry of Nagano in Meiji Japan,” p. 29.

[12] Liao, “Population, Resources and Female Labor in the Raw Silk Industry of Nagano in Meiji Japan,” p. 29.

[13] Liao, “Population, Resources and Female Labor in the Raw Silk Industry of Nagano in Meiji Japan,” pp. 28–30.