can of worms - how silk makes the man

From Tokyo Journal October 1999
by Bella Katz photography by Christopher Kaltenbach

On a rainy July afternoon we are gathered on a small hillside. About ten of us huddled under too few umbrellas, as Robert Whitehead, master craftsman in the making, hands us each a pair of secateurs and points us in the direction of the fast disappearing patch of mulberry bushes.

Back at his Japanese-style home, high in the mountains of the quiet art community of Fujino, 13,000 hungry silkworms are waking from their cycle of three days nonstop feeding (they will eat up to 60 kg of mulberry leaf per day). In one month they have grown from pinhead size to as much as 9 cm. The last day of the cycle is fast approaching - a cycle timed so well that at approximately 4pm of that final day, the fully grown worms will simultaneously turn clear, become long and thin, and start spitting out silk. Then for five days they will spin a cocoon, and turn into moths after ten. These valuable cocoons are the reason that a handful of community volunteers, ages 6 to 74, are gathered on the hillside, helping the foreigner who wants to preserve an ancient Japanese tradition on the verge of extinction.

In November of Showa 25 (1950), 5 million households throughout Japan were making their living from silk production. Of that number, only 5,000 now remain (almost all in Gunma and Nagano prefectures), and the silk culture is in fast decline. Only five years ago, Fujino was still a silk-raising town, but as demand and prices plummeted (within 10 years the price of silk has dropped from ¥6,665/kg to ¥714/kg) it became increasingly difficult to make a livelihood from this time consuming and painstaking process. Not surprisingly, this once culture-defining tradition has become strictly a labor of love. "No one wants to do it anymore," Whitehead says as we towel dry the leaves and throw them into the silkworm trays. "It's messy, it's disgusting. When the worms are spinning they pee everywhere, or they turn black and die in the heat. Then to initially raise them it's this exacting process of refrigerating them, and keeping them in prime condition so as to synchronize their cycles." It's a constant race against time as the numbers of elders, who were such an important part of the silk culture, diminish and the old silk traditions are lost. In Fujino, old houses are being burned down to make room for new ones. The old silk equipment is being thrown out - valuable looms and silk-weaving tools which Whitehead now collects.

"I developed this reputation here; every old person was talking about the gaijin who was carrying mulberry bushes around. Then by knocking on doors and asking the people if they had any equipment, I got to know the old people of Fujino. I loved talking to them and hearing their stories."

Born just outside Vancouver, Whitehead arrived in Japan over 10 years ago. Having first traveled around India for six months, and finding himself unable to adjust back to life in Canada, he moved to Japan to study Japanese painting. It was only when he started to sell his work that he gained confidence in the idea of making a "partial living" from his art. (He credits Yanagi Soetsu's "The Unknown Craftsman" with inspiring him to live the life of a shokunin, or master craftsman.) For over nine years he has called Fujino, two stops from Takao on the Chuo Line, home. "Fujino has always had this great community atmosphere that you can't find in a city like Tokyo," says Whitehead. "There are always festivals - whether art or music - everyone is producing something. I just wanted to do something for Fujino. I want to live my life as more than just a consumer."



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