Tomioka silk mill gets World Heritage nod

Tomioka silk mill gets World Heritage nod
People visit the Tomioka Silk Mill in Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture, on Saturday.

A key advisory body has recommended the Tomioka Silk Mill and related sites in Gunma Prefecture for World Heritage status, the Cultural Affairs Agency announced early Saturday.

The endorsement by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) is expected to receive official approval when UNESCO's World Heritage Committee meets in June in Doha.

If approved, the Tomioka mill and related facilities would become Japan's 14th World Heritage site, following the recognition of Mt. Fuji last year.

After silk was deemed an important export product by the government in the Meiji era (1868-1912), the Tomioka mill was founded in Tomioka in 1872 as the first government-operated mechanical silk mill.

The other sites included in the nomination are the former residence of Yahei Tajima in Isesaki as an example of a silk-farmer's home; the Takayamasha sericulture school site in Fujioka; and Arafune Fuketsu, a cold storage site for silkworm eggs in Shimonita that uses naturally cool air.

French industrial technology was combined with independently developed sericulture technology to mass produce high-quality raw silk. Technological innovation continued up until automated spinning machines were installed in the mid-20th century.

In 1930, Japan exported about 80 per cent of the world's raw silk.

The mill halted operations in 1987 and came under city ownership in 2005. Sites such as the timber-frame, brick masonry silk mill and cocoon warehouse are almost perfectly preserved.

The nomination materials said the sites had value due to their role in helping to popularise silk around the world.

In its recommendation, ICOMOS said the sites expressed the rapid advance from traditional silk production to the best methods of mass production.

While the council warned about encroaching urbanization and called for more research on the labour environment of those days, it did not attach any conditions for registration.

ICOMOS gave the sites the highest of its four recommendation levels-recommending it for registration.

Recently, sites that receive recommendations for registration are usually approved by the World Heritage Committee.

'Nearly perfect'

At a press conference following the announcement, Koji Takahashi, chief of the monuments section at the Cultural Affairs Agency, called the recommendation "nearly perfect" among those handed out in the last several years, citing the lack of conditions attached to it.

Strictly limiting the number of sites is seen as having contributed to the success of the strategy of the agency and the Gunma prefectural government.

With the number of World Heritage sites approaching 1,000 worldwide, UNESCO has become stricter in emphasizing that sites must have clear value.

Initially, the nomination was to be for "Tomioka" and included 10 sites, including facilities related to the Usui Pass Railway.

But after studying the experience of Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture, which was rejected in 2008 but then won recognition after cutting locations from its nomination, it was decided to only include facilities directly tied to technological innovation.

The nomination materials emphasised that in addition to contributing to modern Japanese culture, the technological innovations incubated at the Tomioka Silk Mill helped develop the global silk industry.

It is now hoped the high praise given to a nomination related to modern Japanese culture will continue next year when the World Heritage Committee considers a group of sites in Fukuoka and seven other prefectures related to the Industrial Revolution in Meiji-era Japan.

There are currently 981 World Heritage sites-759 cultural sites, 193 natural sites and 29 composite sites.

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