Women in the Silk-reeling Industry at Tomioka Silk Mill

By Nana Matsuda

Introduction

In this paper, I will demonstrate how the silk-reeling industry influenced the development of Japan’s industrialization and modernization. To illustrate the development process of Japan, I will mainly focus on Tomioka Silk Mill, in Gunma Prefecture as an example. Tomioka Silk Mill is the first silk-reeling factory that was officially established in 1872 by the Japanese government.

During the long period of isolation, sakoku, any relation or trade with other countries was strictly limited. However, at the end of the Edo period (1603 – 1868), the Tokugawa shogunate ended its isolationist foreign policy and Japan restarted the trade with Western countries in 1859.[1] In Edo period, the most common product that Japan exported to the West was raw silk. Silk was, at that time, one of the most important Japanese business articles.[2] Due to the opening of the Japanese ports to the West in 1854, the import of Western products and modern technology made it possible to achieve the mass expansion of silk production.[3]

Right after the end of the seclusion, silk became a necessary export article for Japan, and due to the technology, the silk-reeling industry developed significantly. Specifically, raw silk and silkworm eggs began to be sold as global products. A decade later, Japan developed remarkably with the beginning of the Meiji period. The long-lasting period of feudalism came to an end with new national leaders and a modern world power was introduced to an isolated, secluded country. The main changes that happened during this period are the developments in technology, politics, economy, social structure, and the relation with the foreign nations.[4]

With the help of new technologies and enlarged business platforms, Japan successfully gained a leading position in the global market. The development of the silk-reeling industry contributed greatly to the modernization of Japan, and behind its development, there are female factory operators that are often ignored.[5] In this paper I will focus on the contribution of Tomioka Silk Mill and the female workers to industrialization of Japan.


Video about how Japan became an economically developed country with silk industry [6]

 

Background of the Meiji Restoration and Development in Silk-reeling Industry

Japan started its isolation policy in Edo period, and in 1853, when U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry forced Japan to open its borders, he also brought Western technology, production methods, new business platforms, which led to rapid industrialization. The new government after the Tokugawa shogunate prioritized economic growth and industrial modernization to be in a competitive relationship with the countries in Asia and Europe. This was the beginning of the so-called Meiji Restoration. In this era, many strategic industries were established, and the production of consumer goods was strongly supported by the Japanese government.[7] Japan started to trade with Western countries, and the most important of products were textiles. There was great demand for raw silk, as Japan had traditionally produced high-quality silk. The introduction of machinery for silk production from Western countries enabled Japan for mass production with the growth of cotton spinning factories.

Figure 1: Tomioka Silk Mill (inside), used for mass production of silk. SILKOOL Tomioka.

Due to this demand for raw silk, mass-produced, low-quality products started to be manufactured and traded with European countries, such as France, England, and Italy.[8] Japan chose to install advanced silk-reeling machines to increase production. Western directors were hired by the Japanese government to teach or train the engineers and factory workers. Western countries prompted a rise in the demand of silk, and they were willing to pay an extraordinary price for this commodity.[9] This situation of increasing demand for silk and the rapid growth in technology became a great opportunity for Japan to gain power to compete with  Western countries, although Japan was so far backwards and underdeveloped in comparison due to the isolation.

The Meiji government responded to the situation by simply acquiring Western technology. This was the beginning of the mechanization of the silk industry in Japan. The Japanese workers managed the complex process of silkworm rearing through their diligence and hard work. They tried to develop many new devices to improve their skill of farming, especially in the multiplication of cocoons per year to increase production. Therefore, sericulture in Japan also stimulated the development of other sectors of industry, and thus significantly contributed to the overall development of Japanese society into its modern structure.

 

Tomioka Silk Mill: Its Roles and History

Having discussed what happened in the Meiji period, this section will mainly focus on the Tomioka Silk Mill. As mentioned above, Japan started to trade with Western countries around 1860, and mass production was required to satisfy the growing demand for silk products. Originally, Japan had its traditional method of production, called zaguri.[10] Women threw cocoons in hot water, unfolded the fiber, and spiraled the coil winding. This method was done all by human power, and it was not productive enough to meet the demand for trading. First, Japan tried to solve this problem by improving farming to increase the quantity of cocoons. Natural cooling equipment for storage of silkworm eggs was introduced, but the quality of the cocoons was not high enough to export to the Western countries. So, Japan decided to construct a large silk-reeling mill to greatly increase the production of silk.[11]

The mill was established by the Meiji government in 1872 as the first government-owned silk-reeling factory, and it was named Tomioka Silk Mill. Tomioka city, in Gunma prefecture, was chosen as the location for the Tomioka Silk Mill for the following reasons: High-quality cocoons were produced in the area, a large area of land was available, fresh water was present, and coal was produced in the nearby region. At first, a number of the employees were French, such as engineers, doctors and instructors to teach the techniques to Japanese workers. Those trainers introduced the skills to the female workers in the Tomioka Silk mill and within around two to three years, they underwent training and returned to their home prefectures. This spread the technique of reeling machines and sericulture techniques all over Japan.[12]

The mill was run by the government for approximately ten years. However, it was not always profitable. In 1893, the Meiji government sold the mill to the Mitsui Conglomerate, and the factory became privatized. In 1902, it was sold again to the Hara Unlimited Partnership, and in 1939, it merged with the Katakura Silk Reeling and Spinning Company. Even though the mill continued to thrive as a silk-reeling factory over history, it was closed a century later in March 1987. The reason for its closing was mainly the growth of the silk industry in other Asian countries and that Japan could not compete with them anymore. Currently, the buildings are owned and maintained by Tomioka City, and in 2014, it was put on the UNESCO World Heritage list.[13]

 

Labor Condition for Female Workers in the Tomioka Silk Mill

Japan’s rapid growth of economy sounds like a success story. Although the silk-reeling industry contributed greatly to the modernization of Japan, the reality of the female operators was not favorable. At first, mill girls at the Tomioka Silk Mill were mostly from Gunma prefecture, Shiga prefecture, and Nagano prefecture.[14] Some of the workers were from prosperous families, or the “samurai families”, and they were encouraged by their parents to go work in the factory to gain skills as mill workers and contribute to the national growth of Japan. To support and emphasize the importance of the silk mill, prominent officials started to send their daughters to Tomioka city. Also, at that time, employees were provided welfare by the government. This situation led female workers to migrate from across Japan for work in Tomioka. Early industrial workers at Tomioka Silk Mill were the privileged group, as they were from samurai families, compared to the factories in the rural area. Most of the workers had prior experience owith handicraft silk production, and they received comparatively favorable treatment.

As the scale of production grew, demand for labor also increased. The number of women and male workers that came from wealthy families declined, and they were slowly replaced by the young female workers from rural families. Most of the mill girls were the age of twelve to twenty, and they lived in dormitories in the nearby region.[15] They were used as a labor force, the employers justified the low wages by providing training in silk production, which could be utilized even when they go back to their home prefectures to marry.

The mill girls were hired with very low wages, but the working conditions would be considered shocking for most people living in the twenty-first century.[16] Firstly, the working hours were from early in the morning until midnight. Working hours were repeatedly lengthened to increase production, and their daily working hours were often as much as eighteen hours per day during the peak period. Secondly, they were not provided enough food to stay healthy, and they were not given enough meal breaks as they needed to keep the machines working. Thirdly, the dormitory they lived in was very small and they had to sleep in a bed with many other workers, which was uncomfortable. Fourthly, they came to Tomioka mostly through recruiting agents, and only a small amount of the income went to the mill girls, employers or the agents would receive the majority of the income. Finally, the working conditions themselves were extremely unhealthy. There was no air-conditioning, the factory was always very humid and filled with dust. Hygiene facilities were inadequate, and those girls were required to work under such conditions. Excessively long hours of work led to exhaustion, malnutrition, and illnesses such as tuberculosis.[17]

To protest against this sweat labor of the female workers, the first strike that happened was in Amemiya Seishi, which was called “Amemiya Seishi Sōgi.”[18] This strike in 1996 by these female factory workers was the first strike held in Japan. They were arguing against the policy of the factory that was violating basic human rights and freedom of choices, and also not providing sufficient payment. This strike shows that the frustration of female workers and the extent of the situation. Therefore, to sum up, Tomioka Silk Mill and other silk-reeling factories made Japan grow as an economical competitive country in Meiji era, but the background behind its success story is not widely known. There was a presence of female workers who worked too long hours to increase the production to be part of the national power.

 

Tomioka Silk Mill Today and Female Workers Seen as a Lesser Figure

As stated above, working conditions in silk mills were known for their harshness.[19] Especially after demand for labor increased and enlarging the scale of production in the 1880s, a great number of female workers who were employed in factories, created a “new permanent working class.”[20] Because of its condition, it was common for the workers to be sick due to malnutrition and exhaustion. In contrast, Tomioka Silk Mill today is a promotional material for Gunma prefecture and it is represented in many of the travel magazines and websites as a “model recruiting factory” which offered privileged working conditions to the factory operators.

In addition to that, the female workers are exhibited as an “icon”, but the reality is not told. They are promoted as “Otomi-chan”  in the current Tomioka Silk Mill.[21] It is one of the “gotouchi character” mascots produced by local governments in Japan to represent their respective cities and towns. However, the exhibits mainly focus on the technical aspects of silk production and the facility, while exhibits about the life of factory girls is extremely limited. For instance, the tour guides tend to focus on explaining about the construction of the mills, how advanced the machineries were at that time, and how the silk-reeling industry contributed to the modernization of Japan. The visitors can learn about the process of silk-reeling and growth of cocoons, but they are not given the opportunity to learn about the mill girls’ contribution to the industry.

In addition to the visual representation of mill girls, there is a defect in text representation of female workers in Tomioka Silk Mill, too. According to the research conducted by Maruyama and Woosnam about the patterns in representation of female workers in the mill, they have found that there is a misrepresentation on the official website, in guidebooks, and online travel guides.[22] Specifically, Tomioka Silk Mill looks like a model recruiting factory that encouraged women’s empowerment and offered privileged condition for the workers for their own growth and acquirement of the skills. However, in reality, in 1933, the Japanese government officially reported that the sanitary conditions of the Tomioka Silk Mill were particularly poor compared to other factories, and thus sicknesses and diseases among the workers were prevalent. In addition, Takase demonstrated that a large number of women even committed suicide due to the working conditions.[23]

In contrast to the labor conditions of the female workers and their great contribution to the modernization, their work is not portrayed adequately in Tomioka Silk Mill in the present time. This reality implies that the great work done by females could often be ignored, and this could be also related to the fact that women are seen as a lesser figure. Japan traditionally is a society that supports male-dominance, and women’s empowerment does not find much support.[24] And this fact could be seen by the misrepresentation of mill girls in Tomioka Silk Mill, too.

 

Conclusion

The purpose of this paper was to explore how the mill girls of Tomioka Silk Mill, the first silk reeling factory in Japan that flourished around 1870 to 1940, worked to contribute to the industrialization and how they are represented now as a lesser figure. The labor of these female factory operators made significant contributions to the growth of a modern industrial sector and to make Japan a global power after the Meiji Restoration, while there was exploitation of these workers behind its success.[25]

This paper first presented a brief history of Japan during Edo to Meiji period. After long years of isolation, Japan started to open its ports to Western countries to begin exporting or importing goods. What was imported from the world was the Western ideas and technology, and what was exported from Japan to the world was mainly textiles. This combination enabled Japan to boost its economic development and allowed for the mass production of silk products. Japan installed new technology, such as modern machinery, with support from the government and hired foreign trainers to share their skills with the local employees. This was the beginning of the history of the Tomioka Silk Mill.

In contrast to the success story of Japanese modernization, the mill girls, who directly contributed to the growth of the factory, had a severe life inside the factory. Female workers suffered from harsh working conditions from when they were twelve years old. They were exploited by a dominant institution, for example, they had very long working hours, poor housing, unhealthy meals, inadequate sanitary conditions, and many of the mill girls got a disease like tuberculosis because of this. The very first strike occurred in Japan was by those mill girls, arguing against the insufficient income and violation of basic human rights and freedom in silk-reeling factories.[26]

Although the major contribution was made by those mill girls towards industrialization during the Meiji period, there is a misrepresentation of them in the modern society.[27] In fact, most of the narratives only focus on the bright side of the Tomioka Silk Mill, such as technological development in Japan, or women’s privileged working conditions and empowerment. These incomplete representations might universalize the reality of a male-dominant society and establish it as the norm by concealing the history of the exploitation of the mill girls. By researching the current exhibit in Tomioka Silk Mill, it could be interpreted that their hard work is often taken for granted in light of their achievements.[28]

Finally, this paper suggests that there was exploitation of female workers in the Tomioka Silk Mill and it is often misrepresented, but the extent of this research is limited. Firstly, this paper is solely depending on the historical contexts and the trustworthiness of those sources may be uncertain. Secondly, some information might not be up to date, for example about the exhibit in the mills. Despite these limitations, this paper has clearly demonstrated that there was hard work of female workers behind Japan’s great achievement in economic success. In doing so, these findings provide a useful foundation for future research.

 

[1] Hunter, “Japanese Women at Work,” pp. 1–7.

[2] Sindlar, Tomioka Silk Mill and its role in modernization of Japan.

[3] Macnaughtan, Women, Work and the Japanese Economic Miracle: The case of the cotton textile industry.

[4] Macnaughtan, Women, Work and the Japanese Economic Miracle: The case of the cotton textile industry.

[5] Hunter, Women and the labour market in Japan’s industrialising economy: the textile industry before the Pacific War.

[6] Wao Ryu! Only in Japan, 2017, “How Japan became high tech w/ silk worms”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8zFxUBv60I

[7] Shogaki, Fujii and Nakagawara, “Deformation of the foundation and structure of Tomioka Silk Mill’s East Cocoon Warehouse,” pp. 789–800.

[8] Hunter, Women and the labour market in Japan’s industrialising economy: the textile industry before the Pacific War.

[9] Sindlar, Tomioka Silk Mill and its role in modernization of Japan.

[10] Sindlar, Tomioka Silk Mill and its role in modernization of Japan.

[11] Hunter, Women and the labour market in Japan’s industrialising economy: the textile industry before the Pacific War.

[12] Macnaughtan, Women, Work and the Japanese Economic Miracle: The case of the cotton textile industry.

[13] Sindlar, Tomioka Silk Mill and its role in modernization of Japan.

[14] Sindlar, Tomioka Silk Mill and its role in modernization of Japan.

[15] Tsurumi, “Yet to be heard: The voices of Meiji factory women,” pp. 18–27.

[16] Macnaughtan, Women, Work and the Japanese Economic Miracle: The case of the cotton textile industry.

[17] Sindlar, Tomioka Silk Mill and its role in modernization of Japan.

[18] Orii, “Kusa no ne no josei-tachi no ayumi (2) Nihon saisho no rōdōsha no sutoraiki – Amemiya Seishi Kōjō no jokō no sutoraiki,” pp. 24–26.

[19] Shogaki, Fujii and Nakagawara, “Deformation of the foundation and structure of Tomioka Silk Mill’s East Cocoon Warehouse,” pp. 789–800.

[20] Cited by Maruyama and Woosnam, “Representation of ‘mill girls’ at a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Gunma, Japan,” p. 7. 

[21] Maruyama and Woosnam, “Representation of ‘mill girls’ at a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Gunma, Japan.”

[22] Maruyama and Woosnam, “Representation of ‘mill girls’ at a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Gunma, Japan.”

[23] Takase, Ikyō ni chitta wakai inochi : Kyū kan’ei tomioka seishijo kōjo no haka.

[24] Lebra, “Japanese women in male dominant careers: Cultural barriers and accommodations for sex-role transcendence,” pp. 291–306.

[25] Shogaki, Fujii and Nakagawara, “Deformation of the foundation and structure of Tomioka Silk Mill’s East Cocoon Warehouse,” pp. 789–800.

[26] Orii, “Kusa no ne no josei-tachi no ayumi (2) Nihon saisho no rōdōsha no sutoraiki – Amemiya Seishi Kōjō no jokō no sutoraiki,” pp. 24–26.

[27] Maruyama and Woosnam, “Representation of ‘mill girls’ at a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Gunma, Japan.”

[28] Takase, Ikyō ni chitta wakai inochi : Kyū kan’ei tomioka seishijo kōjo no haka.

 

 

References

Hunter, Janet. Women and the labour market in Japan’s industrialising economy: the textile industry before the Pacific War. RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

Hunter, Janet. “Japanese Women at Work, 1880-1920.” History Today 43:5 (1993), 1–7.

Lebra. “Japanese Women in Male Dominant Careers: Cultural Barriers and Accommodations for Sex-Role Transcendence.” Ethnology 20:4 (1981), 291–306.

Macnaughtan, Helen. Women, Work and the Japanese Economic Miracle: The case of the cotton textile industry, 1945-1975. Routledge, 2004.

Maruyama Naho Ueda and Woosnam, Kyle Maurice. “Representation of “mill girls” at a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Gunma, Japan.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism (2020), 1–18.

Orii Miyako 折井美耶子. “Kusa no ne no josei-tachi no ayumi (2) Nihon saisho no rōdōsha no sutoraiki – Amemiya Seishi Kōjō no jokō no sutoraiki” 草の根の女性たちのあゆみ(2)日本最初の労働者のストライキー雨宮製糸工場の女工のストライキ.  Josei & Undō 女性&運動52 (1999), 24–26.

Sindlar, Pavel. Tomioka Silk Mill and its role in modernization of Japan. Masaryk University Faculty of Social Sciences Department of Sociology, 2012.

Shogaki Takaharu, Fujii Yukiyasu and Nakagawara Yuhta. “Deformation of the foundation and structure of Tomioka Silk Mill’s East Cocoon Warehouse.” Soils and Foundations 59:4 (2019), 789–800.

Takase Toyoji 高瀬豊二. Ikyō ni chitta wakai inochi : Kyū kan’ei tomioka seishijo kōjo no haka 異郷に散った若い命 : 旧官営富岡製糸所工女の墓. Orionsha, 2014.

Tsurumi, Patricia. Factory girls: Women in the thread mills of Meiji Japan. Princeton University Press, 1992.

Tsurumi, Patricia. “Yet to be heard: The voices of Meiji factory women.” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 26:4 (1994), 18–27.

Wao Ryu! Only in Japan. How Japan became high tech w/ silk worms. YouTube (2017.10.05). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8zFxUBv60I.