Hand looms, power looms, and changing production organizations: the case of the Kiryū weaving district in early twentieth-century Japan


  • We would like to thank the editors and three anonymous referees for valuable suggestions. We are also grateful to Leigh Gardner, Janet Hunter, Debin Ma, Tetsuji Okazaki, Yasuyuki Sawada, Minoru Sawai, Tetsushi Sonobe, Oliver Volckart, Xun Yan, and participants of seminars at the London School of Economics and Political Science and University of Tokyo (Zushi Conference) for helpful comments and suggestions. Tomoko Hashino also thanks Maarten Prak for valuable discussion and Takazō Gotō and Kozō Kameda for helping her repeat a field survey in Kiryū. The financial support of Rokkōdai Kōenkai, Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (A) 22243022, and (A) 23243055 is gratefully acknowledged.


The Kiryū silk weaving district, located 200 kilometres north of Tokyo, has been one of the most advanced silk weaving districts since the Tokugawa period (1603–1868). In the 1870s, it was a pioneer in the export of silk products from Japan and the leading producer of traditional Japanese kimono and obi (sash belts) for domestic markets. This study finds that the developmental process of the Kiryū district from 1895 to 1930 can be divided into at least two phases, that is, one of gradual growth based on an inter-firm division of labour using hand looms and one of dynamic development based on the factory system using power looms. Weaving manufacturers-cum-contractors pioneered gradual growth by sub-contracting with rural village out-weavers and with a number of specialized, supporting firms in Kiryū town, and grew faster than factory production systems. New joint-stock firms played the role of genuine entrepreneurs by introducing power looms, thereby realizing significant economies of scale. During this new phase, the weaving manufacturers-cum-contractors survived and also introduced new production systems.