Exhibition "KAIKO: Sericulture of the Imperial Household, Ancient Textiles from the Shosoin Repository, and Exchanges of Silk between Japan and France"

The Japan Foundation, co-organizing with the Imperial Household Agency and the Agency for Cultural Affairs, presents an exhibition titled “KAIKO: Sericulture of the Imperial Household, Ancient Textiles from the Shosoin Repository, and Exchanges of Silk between Japan and France”.

The exhibition takes place from February 19 to April 5, 2014 at the Maison de la culture du Japon à Paris in France.


Exhibition in France

Exhibition title KAIKO: Sericulture of the Imperial Household, Ancient Textiles from the Shosoin Repository, and Exchanges of Silk between Japan and France
Dates Wednesday, February 19 - Saturday, April 5, 2014
Closed Sundays and Mondays
Opening hours Tuesday to Saturday 12:00 p.m. ~ 7:00 p.m.
Thursdays 12:00 p.m. ~ 8:00 p.m.
Venue  Maison de la culture du Japon à Paris
Organized by the Imperial Household Agency, the Agency for Cultural Affairs, and the Japan Foundation
In cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Supported by Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, France
Sponsored by Japan Airlines

Exhibition Outline

In 1859, after a long period of national isolation, Japan opened the port of Yokohama to foreign trade. As raw silk was an important export product, the silk industry became one of Japan’s principal industries. To promote the silk industry, Empress Dowager Shoken began raising silkworms in the Imperial Household in 1871. That was the beginning of the Imperial sericulture, and the tradition has been handed down through the successive Empresses of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the Taisho Era (1912-1926) and the Showa Era (1926-1989). In spite of the drastic decline of sericulture in Japan, Her Majesty the Empress has continued to carry on the practice for 25 years in the Heisei Era, and continues to do so to this day, as one of the important Imperial traditions.

Although silk is no longer the important export product that it used to be, and the Imperial sericulture does not have the function of promoting the silk industry, Her Majesty carries on the tradition to this day as She has been deeply moved by, and empathizes with, the devotion of those who continue to preserve this cultural tradition in Japan. It was Her wish that the methods of sericulture cultivated with unceasing effort over the years by the Japanese craftsmen be preserved for at least another generation so that the technique of creating beautiful silk from silkworms will not disappear completely from Japan. In acknowledgement of Her Majesty’s wish, at the Momijiyama Imperial Cocoonery, essentially the same manual operations that used to be conducted by silk growers in Japan during the season, over a two-month period in the spring or early summer, are still carried out every year. Along with a group of five workers, including one head worker, the Empress takes time out of Her official duties to participate in nearly all aspects of the process.

In 1990, the Empress expressed a desire to continue cultivating an old type of silkworm that was on the verge of being discontinued. With only half the thickness of contemporary silk, the thread produced by this species turned out to play an indispensable role in the restoration of ancient textiles, an important cultural asset of Japan.

At the Imperial Cocoonery, a purely domestic silkworm, the koishimaru, was cultivated along with other species which were gradually improved. Although this silkworm used to be widely treasured for its beautiful thread in the Meiji and early Taisho Eras, it eventually fell out of favor due to its low productivity until, by the end of the Showa Era, just a few remained only at the Imperial Cocoonery. While it seemed inevitable that the species would be discontinued, the Empress expressed a desire to continue cultivating the species for a while longer, so a small quantity of the koishimaru silkworms continued to be raised when the sericulture of the Heisei Era was started.

It later became apparent that this type of delicate silk thread was essential in restoring the ancient textiles from the 8th century kept in the Shosoin Repository, work which was planned from 1994. So the Empress’ decision to continue raising the silkworms led to the restoration of these treasures and the thread also came to be used to repair picture scroll masterpieces from the Kamakura Period, dating to about 1309, playing an important role in preserving the heritage of Japanese culture. Thus, with changing times, a new significance was added to the Imperial sericulture. Consulting with the head worker, the Empress decided to increase the production of koishimaru silkworms and presented the Shosoin Repository with between 20 and 50 kilograms of koishimaru cocoons every year from 1994 until the restoration project was completed in 2010, for a period of 16 years.

To commemorate the 70th birthday of Her Majesty the Empress, the Imperial Household Agency held an exhibition on the Imperial sericulture and the restoration of the ancient textiles of the Shosoin Repository using koishimaru at the Museum of the Imperial Collections. Later, on the occasion of Her Majesty’s 77th birthday, the Agency held another exhibition which traced the subsequent developments of the sericulture and the restoration projects. Both exhibitions were well received.

The topic of a silkworm disease known as pebrine was mentioned in the exhibitions. In the mid-19th century, the French sericulture industry was seriously damaged due to an outbreak of pebrine, which spread throughout Europe. In response to Napoleon III’s request, Japan sent a shipment of silkworm eggs to France, which helped resolve the crisis.

On the other hand, it was under the guidance of French engineers that the Tomioka Silk Mill, Japan’s first mechanized spinning factory, was constructed and completed in 1872, with silk-reeling machines imported from France forming part of the automation process. Female factory workers from all over Japan who assembled here to study the new mechanized reeling techniques from the French engineers later became instructors at silk mills in various regions, contributing to the further development of the industry in Japan. Others went to France to study and returned with advanced dyeing and weaving technologies, making a substantial contribution to the development of the silk dyeing and weaving industry in the Meiji Era.

In light of these exchanges between Japan and France through silk, we are presenting an exhibition in Paris showing the Imperial sericulture carried on by Her Majesty the Empress and textiles from the Shosoin Repository which were restored using koishimaru silk threads made at the Imperial Cocoonery as well as information about the exchanges through silk between France and Japan.

It is our hope that this exhibition will lead to greater understanding of the traditions and culture of the Imperial Household of Japan and help to promote further cultural exchanges between Japan and France.

Sericulture of Her Majesty the Empress

Inheriting the tradition of Imperial sericulture by the successive Empresses from the late 19th century, Her Majesty the Empress is personally involved in the manual operations that are still performed at the Imperial Cocoonery each year, from spring to summer, in spite of the decline of the silk industry in Japan. In addition to various types of silkworms, the Empress cultivates an old, purely domestic species of silkworm known as koishimaru.

Photo of Transferring Koishimaru
Transferring Koishimaru:
The silkworms are placed into a holder on the mabushi cocooning
frame to encourage them to make cocoons.

Photo of Koishimaru silkworms
Koishimaru silkworms

Photo of Koishimaru cocoons
Koishimaru cocoons

Photo of Raw silk thread from Koishimaru
Raw silk thread from Koishimaru

Restoration of the Ancient Textiles of the Shosoin Repository

After the delicate thin thread harvested from the koishimaru silkworm was found to be essential in restoring the ancient textiles from the Nara Period, in the 8th century, the cocoons were produced in greater numbers and presented to the Shosoin Repository. The thread was then used to restore some of Japan’s most valuable cultural heritage, the treasures of the Shosoin Repository.

Purple Brocade with Round Phoenix and Arabesque PatternPurple Brocade with Round Phoenix and Arabesque Pattern This restored fabric was originally used for the elbow rests beloved by Emperor Shomu of the Nara Period.
Purple Brocade with Round Phoenix and Arabesque Pattern

Red Brocade with Chinese Flower PatternRed Brocade with Chinese Flower Pattern This gorgeous restored fabric was once used for majestic banners decorating the interior of Buddhist temples.
Red Brocade with Chinese Flower Pattern

Tradition of Japanese Silk Culture and Exchanges with France

Traditional garments worn by His Majesty the Emperor as a child, the garments of Her Majesty the Empress, and various works of art are displayed to show the long tradition of Japanese silk culture and the exchanges through silk that have taken place between Japan and France since the late 19th century.

Garment with Waterfall Pattern (Long-sleeved Kimono)

Garment with Waterfall Pattern (Long-sleeved Kimono)
This kimono was worn by His Majesty the Emperor at His Chakko-no-gi, or Hakama-Wearing Ceremony, held on May 5, 1938, when He was five years old, or six years old by the traditional Japanese reckoning. In this ancient ritual held in the Imperial Palace, a boy is fitted with hakama, a pleated garment worn on the lower body, for the first time to commemorate the transition from infant to child. The traditional design, inspired by a waka poem from the late Heian Period (794-1185), depicts the vigorous flow of a waterfall, and also embodies a prayer for long life. The garment was given to the Emperor by His parents, Emperor Showa and Empress Kojun.

Woven Wall Hanging with Odaiko Drum Motif by Seishichi Sasaki
This large wall hanging was originally exhibited at the 1900 World Exposition held in Paris. In the modern era, Japan learned weaving and dyeing techniques from the West, primarily France, and produced many new works which made the most of both those techniques and the old Japanese traditions.

Woven Wall Hanging with Odaiko Drum Motif

(Photo courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency)

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