The Silk Industry In Japan In The 1800s

Genevieve Chin & Sindhu Mommaneni

In one of its publications, the Japan Society presents its views on how silk originated in China. Around 1700 BC, the fourteen-year-old Queen of the third Emperor of China, began the cultivation of wild silkworms at the suggestion of her husband. The Emperor wanted to know how silkworms were raised and whether the Chinese people could raise them generally so that they might make garments. So successful were the Queen's experiments that she was named "The Goddess of the Silk Worm". This story seems more or less consistent with what we have read and learned in class.

It was not long before the Chinese were weaving gorgeous garments from silk. However, the garments were so expensive that only the Emperors of China could afford them. In any event, the silk industry thrived and China began to sell her silks to Persia. The Persians were the people who introduced silk to the rest of the world. At that time, the Persian's didn't have a clue about the origins of silk. This was natural, since death was the penalty for anyone caught sneaking silk worms out of the borders of China, or revealing the process by which silk was obtained.

Many were the theories in Europe as to just where silk came from. Some thought beetles were the source, some wondered if it came from sheep, and still others marveled whether it could be a kind of earth that was combed out fine! Soon people began to wonder how to weave it. According to popular belief, Pamphila, daughter of the Greek king Platoes of the Island of Cos, discovered in 400 BC the art of unraveling the heavy Chinese silk and re-weaving it to understand how it was woven. For almost nine centuries after that, silk in Europe was manufactured by unraveling and reweaving the Chinese silk products.

The existence of such a valuable and exquisite commodity naturally led other countries to be curious about the secret behind its making.

The silkworm is mentioned in the oldest Japanese myths, but its historical record only begins with the naturalization of a Chinese man, who came to Japan in 199 AD, carrying with him a cluster of silkworm eggs. It is not known whether these eggs were smuggled in or not. However, we assume they were in fact smuggled in, due to the fear of the death penalty. According to the Japan Society, ninety years later, several other Chinese experts went to Japan and engaged in the rearing of silkworms in various districts. This account of the Japan Society seems rather inconsistent since the Chinese guarded their secret rather fiercely. Perhaps by then, the Chinese allowed the spread of this precious knowledge. In any case, the sericulture industry in Japan can be assumed to have dated from between the second and the third century AD.

In 600 AD, a new tax system was initiated in Japan, whereby people had to pay taxes in silk textures. We are familiar with this system since many countries, including China, followed this system of paying taxes using silk. This system automatically brought about a dramatic increase in the production of silk fabrics. A law in 701 AD ordered that every family should plant a certain number of mulberry trees according to its socioeconomic standing.

At the end of the twelfth century AD, Japan found herself in the throes of civil discord that lasted for over four hundred years. The feudal lords constantly fought among themselves, and peasants were frequently summoned from their peaceful lifestyles. Naturally, sericulture faced a serious setback.

With the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate Government (1603 AD - 1867 AD), peace was restored initially and all the industries began to thrive once more. Sericulture regained lost ground.

The Tokugawa government, although formed by Tokugawa Ieyasu with the intention of restoring peace and order, managed to restore peace only for a brief period before the government took on a divide and rule structure. This is because the government itself was established and maintained by force. The word shogun refers to a military dictator, and the word shogunate means a military dictatorship form of government. The country was divided into several regions, each of which was governed by a warrior chieftain or daimyo who had his own regional army and bureaucracy staffed by professional warriors or samurai. The daimyo's were collectively responsible to the central or national administration known as the Bakufu, which was seated in Edo, now known as Tokyo.

The Japanese distrusted foreigners and the rulers feared the insurgence of Christianity. As a result, Japan remained quite isolated and did not engage too much in foreign trade.

Silk in Japan was produced mainly for domestic uses during that period of time. The Japanese population was divided into castes and one, born into one of these castes could never leave it. There were nine of them: princes, noblemen, priests and military officers made up the first four. Only men and women of these castes had the privilege of wearing garments made out of silk. The Japanese men generally wore trousers that were tight at the calf, and one or more shirts. These shirts were generally made out of cotton but for the nobility, the white cotton was mixed with blue-gray silk. In general, all Japanese clothing, whether for men or women, were attached with silken cords.

Besides clothing, silk also had other uses. The parasol and fan, both of which were considered a part of any respectable lady's costume at a social event, were both made of silk stretched over a delicate bamboo framework. Silk was also employed in the making of lanterns. Instead of using wax in their lanterns, the Japanese used a type of vegetable fat that was coated on to a paper cylinder wrapped in silk.

Japan however, did maintain relations with two countries during the early part of the Tokugawa reign. These two countries were Holland and China, the latter from which she imported silk since domestic production didn't satisfy domestic demands.

During the Tokugawa period, the Fukushima Prefecture's Shindatsu district was the most important silk producing region in Japan during the period in question. This was not the only silk producing region at the time. Both Nagano and Gumma prefectures also produced silk, but on a smaller scale.

The Shindatsu district is a collection of several villages (refer to maps), most of which specialized in the production of silk. Shindatsu is a wide river basin that is bordered by parallel mountain ranges, with the Abukuma Mountains to the east, and the Ou Mountains to the west and north. The river valley is approximately thirty kilometers long and is wider at the southern end than the northern end. The tenth longest river in Japan, the Abukuma River, flows through the Shindatsu basin. The headwaters of the river are in the Nasukazan district of the Ibaragi prefecture; it enters Fukushima prefecture at the southwest and flows north before it empties into the Pacific Ocean. In spring, the 246 tributaries of the Abukuma River flood, spreading wash and silt. This frequent flooding, especially in the northern end of the river basin, makes the land near the river and along its tributaries well suited for mulberry growing. Naturally, sericulture thrived there.

Sericulture began in villages in the northern regions of Shindatsu , located close to and along the river and its tributaries. It is believed that the first mulberry plantings were intended to curtail soil erosion and that only later did the peasants start growing the trees along with rearing silkworms for monetary considerations. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Shindatsu silk producers were selling raw silk to weavers in Kyoto and wholesalers in Omi province. Towards the end of the same century, the demand for silk soared as the Shogunate restricted the import of Chinese silk. In the eighteenth century, wealthy peasants began producing silkworm egg cards.

In order to make silkworm egg cards, the very best cocoons were selected for breeding purposes. The moths were permitted to break through the cocoons, mate and lay eggs. These eggs were placed on a sheet, which was hung up to dry for a few days, until their color turned black (the eggs are sticky and hence adhere to the sheets). After the eggs turned black, lime powder would be sprinkled over them and the sheets would be folded up and stored until the following winter. These sheets were then taken out and rinsed in either salt water or cold tea for about 10 days to kill off the weaker eggs. (How the silk producers knew which eggs were weaker and which eggs could be disposed of is quite a mystery, especially since the ‘strong' eggs didn't hatch till the following year either! Alternatively, maybe they didn't know which eggs were weaker beforehand, but rinsed them so that the weaker ones wouldn't hatch, and the peasants ''t produce lower quality silk). In any event, the eggs would then be stored again until spring, when they were taken out to hatch. In the latter part of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth century, wholesale trading houses in important metropolitan areas established branches in Shindatsu and contracted with local merchants to buy these egg cards and raw silk on consignment.

During the early Tokugawa period, most of the silk producers were wealthy peasants who invested a great deal of time and money to develop new strains of mulberries and silkworms. The middle decades of the eighteenth century were the most dynamic periods of innovation. Five new strains of silkworms were produced and rearing these new strains fetched greater rewards. Several new mulberry strains were also introduced and sericulture flourished. In the early part of the nineteenth century, several advances in rearing techniques were made, the most important of which were the heating techniques. Since silkworms are very sensitive to cold and humidity, producers discovered that if they let the wood and charcoal burn continuously, the constant temperature would make the worms eat faster and reach full growth sooner, so that they could spin their cocoons sooner than they normally would. These heating techniques helped small peasant families to integrate sericulture and traditional farm activities by allotting labor to both silkworm rearing and rice cultivation. By developing hybrid mulberry trees as well as a shorter maturation period of the silkworm, these same peasants could shift labor between silkworm rearing and rice cultivation without hiring additional labor, thus not restricting sericulture to the wealthy.

Practices developed during the reign of the Shogunate however, were not mechanized, and sericulture was highly labor-intensive. Feeding the silkworms, cleaning the rearing trays several times a day to prevent disease to both the worm and those involved with the raising of the worms, and regulating the temperature all demanded a large number of laborers. As a result of high labor costs, the economies of scale were severely limited.

A look at the sericulture industry during the first half of the nineteenth century also suggests that small-scale production was more the norm than the exception. Most people had a small room at home that was well ventilated and had sufficient light to rear the silkworms. Large trays were stacked on one side of the room, and silkworms were fed with mulberry leaves on these trays. When the worms reached their full size, they were placed on twigs and branches and allowed to spin their cocoons. The cocoons were picked from the branches and silk was reeled off them using both hand and foot power. The most important reason that silk rearing was undertaken by a large number of small peasants was that small families could contribute the labor of its members, rather than hire additional workers and add to their costs. Women tended to do most of the sericulture work in addition to housework, while men worked in the rice fields. The fact that silkworm rearing did not require large tracts of land further enabled small families to engage in the production of silk. Moreover, the fact that technology about genetic improvements in both mulberry and silkworm strains was freely disseminated, drove a large number of small farmers to rear the silkworms in their homes.

Until 1860, sericulture was taxed at a low rate during the reign of the Shogunate, and this was another reason that attracted small peasants to this occupation. Crops grown on unirrigated and comparatively infertile soil were not taxed as much as those grown on highly fertile soils. Villages specializing in egg-card manufacture began to pay an annual fee, and braziers used to boil cocoons were taxed lightly, but for the most part, sericulture was not taxed directly, which contributed to its being a family centered industry.

As mentioned earlier, the Tokugawa government was formed in an atmosphere in which foreigners were mistrusted due to the fear of the insurgence of Christianity and as a result, the Japanese restricted their foreign contacts to the Chinese and Dutch. Russian and British efforts to end Japan's policy of national seclusion had as yet achieved little but news of China's defeat by Great Britain in the Opium War (1839-1842) gave confirmation of the fears of Japan's ruling elite about Western power and intentions.

While insecurity was creeping up amongst the officials, problems began in the villages. Peasants produced raw silk, and sold them at local fairs in the villages while large producers engaged in the manufacture of silkworm egg cards. In the 1860s, several silk taxes were imposed and had important repercussions on the sericulture industry which led to widespread revolts among the peasants. In the autumn of 1864, two wealthy peasants, who were spokesmen for large-scale producers in Shindatsu wrote to the Bakufu, complaining about the declining standard in silkworm egg card production and calling for rigorous inspection to enforce the high quality needed to protect their trade. The two peasants proposed to be the inspectors of locally produced silkworm eggs, and they also asked to be the ones to collect the taxes directly.

The Bakufu approved the plan in 1866. Soon after, there was a wave of unrest among the large-scale producers. Local egg-card producers voiced objections. They did not deny the need for inspection to maintain quality, but condoned the motives of the two men, accusing them of furthering their own selfish needs. In the spring of 1866, small-scale producers revolted against the new laws whereby silk was taxed prior to sale. They complained that they didn't have sufficient funds to finance their operating costs during the silkworm rearing season and that the new tax laws would force them to borrow from moneylenders at high interest rates. Moreover, tax extraction did not keep pace with increases in output. These factors caused the people to begin losing confidence in the Bakufu.

It was in 1853 when an American by the name of Commodore Matthew Perry demanded that Japan establish trading and diplomatic relations with the US and threatened to use force that Japan began to gradually open her doors. The opening up of Japan weakened the Shogunate’s position and thus made most people, as well as many Bakufu officials themselves lose confidence in the Bakufu. This thus led to the downfall of the Shogunate.

During the Tokugawa era, several hundred semi-autonomous feudal domains with varying commitments to development governed Japan. In addition, government policies did not encourage the exchange of ideas from province to province and hence, the intra-national communication of farmers and regional officials on the development of agriculture and sericulture was limited. Sericulture largely remained in Fukushima prefecture's Shindatsu region and spread to only as far as Gumma prefecture and Nagano prefecture's Suwa and Shimo Ina. During the latter part of 1859, Japanese exports of raw silk and silk egg cards to China and the West boomed, and the Bakufu tried to cash in on the overseas trading.

What led to increases in productivity and more extensive social changes in 1868 was that Japan broke free from this corrupt and inefficient rule and formed a single government that was dedicated to making the nation rich and strong. With the onset of this new era, regional barriers were demolished and the exchange of technical knowledge was promoted. This single government was the widely recognized Meiji government.

The performance of the silk-reeling industry contributed greatly to the modernization of Japan during the rule of the Meiji's regime. From the time that trade with the West began in 1859, the value of raw silk which was exported through Yokohama, had consistently dwarfed that of all other commodities. According to McCallion, during the year of the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, the export of raw silk accounted for almost 40 percent of the value of all exports and 45 percent of all tax revenues from exports.

However, despite the healthy revenues, the industry was plagued with many problems. With the commencement of trade, the West prompted an increase in the demand of silk and was willing to pay an extraordinary price for this commodity. Silk producers in Japan began to cash in on this new and unlimited market and this resulted in the decline in the quality of raw silk. In the beginning, this result did not cause apparent damage to the public treasury of the silk trade due to two main reasons: the silkworm blight in Europe and the Taiping Rebellion in China.

Firstly, in Europe (1855 -1870) the silkworm disease had produced such ravages in the silk industry that the end of the industry seemed not far off. Many expedients and remedies were tried. Fresh silkworms were brought from China and Japan numerous times but even they succumbed to the disease. It was the great French scientist, Louis Pasteur, who rescued the silk industry in 1870. He found out that the silkworms had been suffering from two diseases, pebrine and flacherie, and that the spread of these two diseases could be prevented by careful segregation of healthy worms from those diseased.

Secondly, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) in China did great damage to the sericulture districts as well as the urban silk weaving industry when its forces struck the lower Yangtze valley in the early 1860s. The extent and nature of this damage was believed to have been disastrous for silk exports.

As a result of these two catastrophes, the Japanese silk industry received hardly any competition and flourished and even spread to new areas where they had not been as profitable.

By the end of the 1860s and the beginning of the 1870s, the silk industry in China and Europe began to recover while the quality of Japan's silk deteriorated. As a result, the Ministry of Civil Affairs took up the matter and concluded that there were two main reasons for the decline of the silk industry. One of the reasons was the fact that producers were only exporting as much as possible to get the highest profit and disregarding the quality of their silk and its production methods. The other reason was the fact that the nation did not have good machinery and the necessary skills required to produce superior quality silk. The ultimate solution given was simply to acquire the Western techniques and machinery.

This marked the beginning of the mechanization of the silk industry in Japan. This mechanization was technically simple. The process consisted merely of turning the reel by steam or water-power instead of by hand or foot, thus producing a silk filament of brighter luster, of more uniform size and of greater strength, with greater speed. The Western-style mechanization also did not cause a cut down on the labor force as the skills of the handicraft veterans were still required as the cocoons still had to be prepared, the filaments started on the reel and splices made when breaks occurred by hand. Women comprised the majority of the employees in the silk factories, thus continuing the tradition. With the introduction of more advanced methods of production and the setting up of numerous silk-reeling mills and factories throughout Japan, sericulture progressed greatly under the Meiji rule.

In conclusion, it can be said that during the Shogunate, sericulture was severely restricted to certain regions and Japan was not a major player in world silk. Silk rearing and reeling techniques were still primitive and the silk industry was more family centered. However, the Meiji Restoration brought in its wake greater productivity via mechanization, expansion and international trade, and the entire structure of the silk industry was transformed, for the better.

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This page was last modified on Monday, August 26, 2002.