Textile Industry

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From the early Meiji period onwards, the textile industry played an important role in Japanese economic development. For many years, raw silk and cotton yarn and fabrics were Japan’s most important export items and its main source of foreign exchange.

In the pre-Meiji period, traditional types of cotton and silk industries prevailed throughout Japan. However, after the beginning of foreign trade the development paths of the cotton and silk industries took completely different directions.

Let us trace the differences step by step following the production stages of these industries: from sericulture to silk reeling and weaving for silk industry, and from cotton growing to cotton spinning and weaving for cotton industry.

In the silk industry, domestic sericulture was fundamentally sustained through the improvement of silkworm varieties and their diffusion. In silk reeling, which was transformed by the introduction of Western technology, people modernized their traditional reeling machines after Western examples but did not replace domestic machines by imported ones.

In the cotton industry, huge quantities of cotton yarn and fabrics were imported from abroad in the early years of the Meiji era and completely destroyed the traditional cotton industry. In an effort to reduce the import of cotton products, the government planned to transplant modern cotton-spinning factories from advanced countries which used imported cotton as a raw material. However, the state-run factories were not successful.

It was the Osaka Cotton Spinning Company, a private firm, that finally succeeded in operating a modern large-scale spinning mill. This mill, which relied on imported cotton, began production in 1883 using imported cotton-spinning machines. Establishment of similar mills by other large-scale firms followed, and from 1897 the value of cotton yarn exports exceeded that of imports.

Weaving machines for making silk and cotton fabrics for the domestic market were basically of the traditional type, but they were improved by adding a flying shuttle and by being transformed into power looms. By contrast, broad cotton cloths for export were weaved by modern imported power looms. However, after Sakichi Toyoda invented a broad-width automatic power loom in 1926, imports of power looms fell sharply and exports of Japanese-made textile machinery began to increase.