Determination to preserve Tomioka Silk Mill paid off in the end

June 22, 2014

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

The listing by UNESCO of the Tomioka Silk Mill as Japan’s first modern industrial heritage site would never have happened were it not for the stubbornness of the factory’s former operator.

After the closure of the factory in Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture, in 1987, Katakura Industries Co., a Tokyo-based textile and industrial parts manufacturer, preserved the building under a policy of “no sale, no lease and no dismantlement.”

After learning of the plant’s listing as a World Cultural Heritage site, Akio Takeuchi, the 65-year-old president of Katakura Industries, called it “the best and perfect outcome” of his company’s three noes policy.

Katakura Industries took over the running of the factory in 1939.

The Tomioka Silk Mill started operations in 1872, in the fledgling years of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), earning Japan world renown for the quality of its silk.

The company operated the plant to produce silk thread for nearly a half century. The plant occupies a 50,000-square-meter plot.

Katakura Industries was aware of its responsibility to preserve this symbol of Japan's headlong rush into modernization and industrialization since the 19th century.

During the closing ceremony for the factory on March 5, 1987, Haruo Yanagisawa, then president of Katakura Industries, said the company had no intention of turning the site into a tourist attraction or allowing it to become a mere relic of the past.

He made clear the company would undertake to maintain the factory to preserve its historical and cultural significance until a better way could be found to permanently manage the facility.

Three company employees were assigned full-time to the closed plant. It cost the company around 80 million yen (about $784,000) annually to keep the factory in good repair.

In 1988, then Tomioka Mayor Yasuji Hiroki urged Yanagisawa to register the plant as a local cultural asset, but he refused, citing the three noes policy.

In 2003, then Gunma Governor Hiroyuki Kodera announced that the prefectural government would seek to have the Tomioka Silk Mill and related silk industry sites in the prefecture, registered on the World Cultural Heritage.

Yanagisawa had already died by then, however. The company agreed to transfer registration of the property to Tomioka for free in 2005, after concluding the deal offered the best prospect of preserving the plant in its original state.

“The plant is now recognized as part of the world’s heritage, which means the whole world can take charge with its preservation from now on,” said retired Katakura Industries employee Hiroshi Tabei, 71, the last leading caretaker at the plant.

(This article was written by Yumiko Baba and Masafumi Ueda)

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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An automatic silk reeling machine preserved in the Tomioka Silk Mill in Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

An automatic silk reeling machine preserved in the Tomioka Silk Mill in Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • An automatic silk reeling machine preserved in the Tomioka Silk Mill in Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • The Tomioka Silk Mill (Provided by Katakura Industries Co.)

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