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From Cerdon to Japan

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Joshu Tomioka Silk Mill - Yosai Saikuni © Digital collection of the National Diet Library

In 1858, France and Japan began their first official relations with the signing on October 9 of a treaty of peace, friendship and commerce. The Japanese archipelago is opening up to the world after 250 years of voluntary isolation and the start of its accelerated modernization. Between 1855 and 1860, two diseases of the silkworms, the pebrin and the flacherie which attack and kill the silkworm, spread in France and decimate the farms; it is a real national disaster. Lyon's world-renowned silk industry has been hit hard. The silk workers will then turn to Japan for the supply of silkworms resistant to the disease. In the summer of 1865, the shôgunal government definitively liberalized the seed trade. Japan is embarking on a process of modernization, drawing inspiration from Europe and more particularly from France. To build the largest spinning mill of the time in the world, the Japanese government recruited the French engineer Paul Brunat (1840-1908) from the Hecht-Lilienthal company, originally from Bourg-de-Péage. Brunat left for France at the beginning of 1871 to order all the necessary equipment. He travels the region of Lyon visiting many companies. The 300 basins for unwinding and spinning the cocoons are ordered from Main et Fils de Cerdon in Ain (now La Cuivrerie de Cerdon). The contract in several articles was negotiated and signed on December 6, 1871 between the company Hecht Lilienthal and the house Main et fils; two missions: on the one hand, supply of three hundred unwinding and spinning machines and, on the other hand, secondment of a competent technician able to assemble these machines and to operate them. This is Jules Chatron, born April 30, 1845 in a small village near Cerdon (Ain), joined Main et fils in 1855, left for Japan in January 1872, arrived on February 12 and returned to France on November 25 1873. Symbol of Japan's entry into the modern industrialized world, the Tomioka Spinning Mill was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2014 and declared a National Treasure of Japan in October 2014.

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