19th century silk mill to join list of Japanese UNESCO World Heritage sites

The Tomioka Silk Mill is expected to join Hiraizumi, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Yakushima Island and other historic Japanese sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list, with a decision to be made imminently.

Located in Gunma Prefecture, the redbrick silk mill and its related facilities will become the newest member of Japan’s 18 UNESCO World Heritage sites, should the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) vote for it at the World Heritage Committee meeting in Qatar, this coming June.

Whilst Japan currently has seventeen properties on the World Heritage List – thirteen cultural, such as the Horyu-Ji Buddhist monuments, and four natural, including the Ogasawara Islands – the Tomioka Silk Mill’s addition will mark the first industry-related heritage site in the nation to be placed on the UNESCO list.

Built in 1872, the Tomioka Silk Mill is Japan’s oldest silk reeling factory. Along with its related structures (such as the mill, and the Takayama-sha Sericulture School, which was home to a silkworm repository) the silk mill played an important role in the radical modernisation of the Japanese silk industry, which took place towards the end of the 19th century. Demand for Japanese silk spinning soared soon after Japan dropped its isolationist policies in 1854, as disease ran amok across Europe, ruining its silkworm stocks.

At its peak, demand for the fabric was so high that by 1863, it accounted for over 80 per cent of Japan’s total exports. However, the number of silk mills in Japan were too few to keep up with the demand, and so Japan embarked upon a drive for modernisation, striving to increase supplies and regain its position as a contender with Western suppliers. With its state-of-the-art machinery and Japanese-Western blended aesthetics (the buildings were framed with wood, walled with red bricks and roofed with traditional Japanese tiles), the building of the Tomioka Silk Mill is the truest representation of Japan’s industrial revolution.

The Tomioka Mill is the only remaining silk factory of the Meiji era to remain preserved in its near-original state, inspiring the Tomioka Municipal government to recommend it to UNESCO in 2012.

Locals hope that its addition to the list of historic sites will lead to a boost in tourism in Gunma Prefecture. Whilst the area surrounding the mill has many hot springs, it has reportedly been losing popularity as a tourist destination in recent years. Since the announcement of the possible UNESCO listing, however, tourism levels have already begun to rise. On Saturday in the midst of the annual Golden Week holiday period, a record 6,456 people visited the silk mill in the city of Tomioka, with customers filling the nearby souvenir shops and restaurants, and local silk-farmers cheering the possible boost to their trade.

However, there are still obstacles that will need to be addressed should the site receive UNESCO’s vote. The mill’s facilities are in a precarious state, and will need to be strengthened further in order to meet earthquake resistance standards if it is to be opened to the public.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee is due to make their decision at a meeting in the Qatari capital of Daha, between June 15th and 25th.

Sources include: The Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan News), UNESCO.org

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