This June brought the good news that Japan’s Tomioka Silk Mill and related industrial sites would be added to UNESCO’s list of World Cultural Heritage sites. Established by the Meiji government in 1872 and operated until 1987, the Tomioka facility was Japan’s first state-run silk mill. By making it possible to mass-produce silk through a farming technique it developed, the mill became the base for Japan to join the modern industrialized world. But although Tomioka is crowded with tourists, the silk farming industry that led and supported Japan’s silk production is on the verge of extinction. There were 2.2 million silk farmers in 1929, compared to fewer than 500 last fiscal year. Gunma Prefecture has been the top cocoon producer in the nation for 60 years. According to JA Usui-Annaka agricultural cooperative, which has the largest number of silk farmers in the prefecture, there were about 2,500 silk farmers around 1960 within the jurisdiction of the Usui-Annaka district. However, the figure was only 35 farmers in fiscal 2013 and 26 in fiscal 2014.

The industry is also deeply gray: Silk farmers’ average age is around 75 or 76. It’s difficult to make a living only through silk cultivation, so hardly any silk farmers have someone to inherit their business. According to the prefectural government, the domestic silk farming industry declined because of faltering demand for silk, the inflow of cheap silk products from overseas, and improvements in chemical fibers. This year’s work in silk farming had almost ended in October, and next year’s work is scheduled to start in May. Until then, no one knows how many people will continue farming silk.

A 78-year-old female silk farmer said: “Even if the Tomioka Silk Mill is preserved for future generations because it was designated as a World Heritage site, the silk farmers who supported the industry will disappear soon. It takes time to hand down silk farming techniques to a successor. I wish the silk farming industry itself had been designated as a World Heritage before the mill.”

Yomiuri Shimbun