Where there’s a mill, there’s a nay

tomioka silk mill, japan, abandoned factory, world heritage list, industrial japan

Where there’s a mill, there’s a nay

  |   Articles, UNESCO   |   16 Comments

This is the website of travel writer, Michael Turtle. After working in broadcast journalism for a decade in Australia, Michael left Sydney to travel the world indefinitely and write about his discoveries.

Tomioka Silk Mill, Gunma, Japan

When the Tomioka Silk Mill first opened in Japan in 1872, the Japanese government set out to recruit young women to come and work at the factory. But they were shocked to find that nobody was applying. It was well-paid work in a relatively comfortable environment, so why were there no takers?

tomioka silk mill, japan, abandoned factory, world heritage list, industrial japan

tomioka silk mill, japan, abandoned factory, world heritage list, industrial japan

Well, it turns out that the Japanese were scared of the French technical advisors who had been hired to run the mill because it was rumoured that the French drank blood! The young women were terrified and refused to apply for jobs. It got so bad that the Japanese government had to issue official notices to deny the rumours. As it turns out, the story had started because the Japanese had seen the French drinking red wine and had mistaken it for blood. In the end, the head manager of the mill – a Japanese man – employed his 14-year-old daughter as the first mill hand to prove there was nothing to fear. It worked and the job applications came in and the mill started operation… three months behind schedule.

tomioka silk mill, japan, abandoned factory, world heritage list, industrial japan

tomioka silk mill, japan, abandoned factory, world heritage list, industrial japan

The Tomioka Silk Mill, about 120 kilometres northwest of Tokyo, was active for more than a century until it was eventually close down in 1987. These days, it is a museum and historical site because of the crucial role it played in the emergence of modern Japan. A very energetic campaign is underway to get it listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Japan-2013-275_web-lrg

tomioka silk mill, japan, abandoned factory, world heritage list, industrial japan

It’s strange to walk through an industrial complex like this that once would have been noisy and bustling with the sounds and activity of efficient and inexhaustible production. The Tomioka Silk Mill was one of the first examples in Japan of a modernisation campaign by Emporer Meiji. He was trying to bring the country into the new age of globalisation and mass-production – often against the will of his more traditional detractors. Raw silk was the most important Japanese export of the time so a factory like this was crucial to compete on the world stage. Its success set the scene for the tremendous economic growth the empire would see over the following decades.

tomioka silk mill, japan, abandoned factory, world heritage list, industrial japan

In the main silk-reeling building, the machines are still in place. Covered by plastic sheets for protection, there’s a ghostly feel to their silence and inertion. If they could speak, they would tell tales of the thousand of young Japanese women, hired for their small hands, who delicately manipulated the cocoons of silk onto the reels and extracted the threads. They would talk of the communities that formed amongst these workers who came from across the country and lived on the site in the dormitories. They might even whisper about the financial losses the mill eventually had to face which led to their abandon.

Japan-2013-296_web-lrg

tomioka silk mill, japan, abandoned factory, world heritage list, industrial japan

My visit reminded me a bit of similar trips to the Sewell Mining Town in Chile and the old Italian company town of Crespi d’Adda. Both those sites were once home to thousands of employees who lived and worked together during industrious times for their country. But both sites eventually became victims of changing economic fortunes and priorities.

tomioka silk mill, japan, abandoned factory, world heritage list, industrial japan

The Sewell Mining Town and Crespi d’Adda are both included on the World Heritage List for the roles they played in their country’s economic and social history. It seems fitting that the Tomioka Silk Mill should be respected in a similar way.

You can find out more information here about the Tomioka Silk Mill

UNESCO world heritage siteThis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here.
You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.

Want occasional updates?

Sign up to be the first to hear the latest about the adventures of Time Travel Turtle.

16 Comments
  • Maria | Apr 29, 2013 at 11:00 am

    Wow Michael! Great history lesson and that must have been eerie to see all the activity and industry it was capable of but now silent. Did it linger in you mind for days after you left?
    Maria recently posted..Wordless Wednesday – Park GuellMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 10, 2013 at 1:56 am

      It was certainly an interesting place. I love the way they’ve left all the machines there so you can easily imagine what it would have been like when it was in full production.

  • Nat | Apr 29, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    I would be extremely angry if I owned a business and people did not want to work for me because of rumours of blood drinking! Too many films and not enough education!
    Nat recently posted..The Coppersmith Bazaar of GaziantepMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 10, 2013 at 1:56 am

      Yeah, wouldn’t it just piss you off! :)

  • Laurence | Apr 29, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    Living in France, I can confirm we attend regular blood drinking parties.
    Laurence recently posted..A lake house adventure in Khao Sok National ParkMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 10, 2013 at 1:58 am

      I knew it! The Japanese aren’t silly enough to believe something that isn’t true!

  • T.W. Anderson @ Marginal Boundaries | Apr 30, 2013 at 1:45 am

    Rumors in the workplace exist everywhere, it would seem!

    Great post and great photos, as always. Thanks for sharing!
    T.W. Anderson @ Marginal Boundaries recently posted..Comment on Tipping Etiquette Around The World by KTMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 10, 2013 at 1:58 am

      Ha ha – yeah, every workplace has rumours. Maybe not quite as gruesome as these ones, though! :)

  • Matthew | Apr 30, 2013 at 2:55 am

    Hey Michael:

    If you have the time, it would be great if you could travel to Sado Island. Charles Jenkins, an American who defected and then lived in North Korea for 40 years, works as a greeter in a gift shot there. It would be fascinating if you could have a dialogue with him and report about it.

    Sado is also where the famous Japanese Buddhist reformer was exiled in the 13th century.

    • Michael Turtle | May 10, 2013 at 1:59 am

      Thanks for the tip, Matthew. Unfortunately I wasn’t really in the right part of the country but it sounds like it would be a fascinating story! Hopefully next time I’m there I’ll be able to look at doing it.

  • Audrey | That Backpacker | Apr 30, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    Oh, how rumours get started… ;)
    Audrey | That Backpacker recently posted..Surviving the Temples of AngkorMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 10, 2013 at 2:04 am

      I know quite a few rumours that have started because of alcohol consumption… but never quite like this!

  • Jennifer | May 1, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    Fascinating! Incredible that the women did not want to work there because they heard the French drink blood.

    • Michael Turtle | May 10, 2013 at 2:10 am

      I guess it was a long time ago and Japan is an extremely insular country. You meet locals today who are scared of foreigners – imagine what it would have been like then!

  • Ryan Z. | Apr 27, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    That’s kind of funny that they’d mistake red wine for blood.
    Looks like kind of a neat place to stroll through, too bad I never heard about it while I was still living in Japan.
    Ryan Z. recently posted..What is Meant by “Raw Silk”?My Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 4, 2014 at 8:37 am

      It’s just a good excuse to go back sometime and add this to the itinerary! :)

Post A Comment

CommentLuv badge