This is Part 12 of a 47-part series of almost-weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
Japan is one of the richest countries on earth, and it got that way through international trade. But 150 years ago, Japan was neither rich nor international.
After having been sealed off from the world by the Tokugawa shoguns for most of the 1603-1868 Edo period, Japan began to fully engage with other nations during the latter half of the 19th century.
To successfully participate in world trade, Japan needed a product it could sell in great quantities. But it wasn’t an agricultural power, and when the 1968-1912 Meiji era began it had no large-scale manufacturing. However, it did have a comparative advantage when it came to silk.
Edward S. Miller writes, “Exports of raw silk commenced in the 1860s to France and Italy, where a worm disease had ravaged sericulture until Dr. Louis Pasteur found a cure.”
Miller is the author of a book called “Bankrupting the Enemy” (U.S. Naval Institute Press) which describes U.S. financial moves against Japan in the years before Pearl Harbor. In setting the scene, he provides a detailed description of Japan’s economy at the time, including a fascinating history of the silk industry:
“As the Japanese entered world trade they planted more and more land in fast-growing mulberry trees. Meiji authorities encouraged scientific sericulture. They recruited former samurai as commercial managers. From 1890, when good statistics were first available, to 1929, mulberry acreage rose 157 percent to 1.5 million acres, covering a remarkable 10 percent of the arable land… In the countryside, hundreds of filature plants housed young women in dormitories, toiling to earn for their families and, as legend has it, for marriage dowries. At work they dropped cocoons into basins of hot water to loosen the natural sericin glue and unwound three, six, or more cocoons simultaneously, twisting the strands onto reels to form the multifilament yarn known as raw silk… Soon reels powered by water wheels and engines replaced hand-turned reels.”
The Tomioka Silk Mill in Gunma Prefecture was the very model of a modern silk reeling factory. Set up by French businessman Paul Brunat under the auspices of the Meiji government, the plant began operations in 1872. According to the plant’s official website, Brunat chose the location, about 100 kilometers northwest of Tokyo, in part because it was well supplied with coal, fresh water, and land suitable for growing mulberry trees.
The plant eventually had an all-Japanese workforce, but at first there were a number of French men working there as engineers, along with a French doctor and some French women who taught Japanese women how to operate the machinery. The unfamiliar presence of foreigners led to a recruiting problem, according to the site. Some women were reluctant to take jobs at the mill because “it was rumored that the French drank blood. The Japanese had seen the French drinking red wine, and had mistaken this for blood. The government tried to deny this rumor…”
This detail is a reminder that the extreme transformation of Japan at that time was like a real-life science-fiction story. Even red brick buildings, now considered synonymous with Meiji architecture, were then a startling novelty. One mill worker, a samurai’s daughter named Ei Wada, wrote in her memoir, “I was so surprised to see the main gate of Tomioka Silk Mill, feeling as if [I were] dreaming. It’s no wonder I should do so, because I had never actually seen a brick building, other than rarely in a picture.”
The women worked eight hours a day with Sundays off, apparently good conditions for the time.
Miller writes that Japan’s silk industry peaked in 1929, when it provided a livelihood to 2.2 million rural households. Its biggest customer was the United States:
“Japan’s success was due to an equally phenomenal growth of silk textile manufacturing in the United States, where wealthy and middle-class women hankered for stylish clothing. Before World War I the nation purchased 80 percent of Japan’s silk exports, during the war 90 percent, and in the late 1920s 95 percent. Raw silk was never subjected to tariffs because sericulture failed in the United States for lack of peasant labor.”
The Tomioka Silk Mill remained active until 1987. It is now maintained as a historic site.
And now for the curry connection.
I bought a 700-yen package of “Tomioka Silk Mill Curry” this week at the Gunma Prefecture antenna shop in Ginza, Tokyo. The product’s full Japanese name literally translates as “Curry loved by the factory girls at the Tomioka Silk Mill.” There are two individual servings in a box adorned with historical pictures. One of them shows women walking across the factory’s brick floor in thick-soled wooden geta – an image combing ancient and modern aspects of Japan in the Meiji equivalent of today’s geisha-with-a-smartphone cliché.
In a whimsical touch, the box claims to be the exact size and shape of one of the factory’s bricks.
As delightful as the packaging may be, I found the curry rather ordinary. It was very thick and dense, with a consistency similar to that of whipped potatoes. It was moderately hot, but there was no particular complexity to its spiciness. The first listed ingredient is pork, but there were only three bite-sized squares of dry, stiff meat in one of the servings, and three in the other.
The next seven ingredients are onions, brown roux, curry powder, vegetable oil, sugar, flour and salt. Coffee appears further down this list. This would have been an exotic ingredient in 1872, but less so in 1987. However, no date for the recipe is given.
The curry was not served at the factory itself, but at a nearby restaurant called Takata Shokudo that is said to have been popular among the workers. A Japanese food blogger who visited the restaurant has posted photos of the curry that look a lot more appealing that what I ate. (See them here.) There appear to be bigger pieces of meat, and there are also big chunks of onion. The onion in the version I sampled had been boiled or pureed beyond recognition. I suppose that like most restaurant food, this curry is best when eaten in situ.