Photo/IllutrationEmpress Michiko scoops up silkworms at the Momijiyama Cocoonery in the Imperial Palace in May 2017 with Takeshi Shirota, an expert on sericulture. (Provided by the Imperial Household Agency)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

There's nothing like a break in routine, and in Empress Michiko's case, that means getting her hands dirty.

As she has done for years, Michiko takes time out from her busy schedule each May in raising silkworms in a wooden building tucked deep inside the Imperial Palace grounds on a leafy hill.

Michiko is the fourth empress to get involved in sericulture at the Imperial Palace since the tradition started in 1871.

But this year will be her last, age considerations aside, as Emperor Akihito will abdicate the Chrysanthemum Throne on April 30, 2019, and the couple will move to new surroundings.

“I was stunned when I saw the empress scooping up handfuls of silkworms herself,” recalled Takeshi Shirota, who supervises silk farming operations at the palace.

Cocoons from the larvae there are spun into silk and later presented to state guests as gifts. Some have been used to reproduce and repair centuries-old artifacts.

The two-story Momijiyama Cocoonery where Michiko, 83, works was built in 1914.

Shirota, who has a Ph.D. in sericulture, was appointed to his current position about two years ago. Prior to that, he was involved in silkworm breeding and agricultural training at Dainippon Silk Foundation’s Institute of Sericulture in Ami, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Shirota, 68, and four young assistants fresh from college and high school, help the empress with her work.

Three varieties of silkworm are raised at the imperial farm based on methods established more than a century ago. That means no air conditioning or artificial feed.

Estimates of the number of silkworms in residence range from 120,000 to 150,000.

The empress works with her bare hands for most of the process, which involves feeding silkworms with mulberry leaves and weaving straw for silkworms to spin cocoons inside.

Last year, she spent 19 days toiling at the silk farm and harvested cocoons weighing a total of 160.4 kilograms.

Shirota said Michiko “genuinely enjoys looking after silkworms,” noting she always finds time for the activity at this time of year.

Empress Dowager Shoken, the wife of Emperor Meiji, started the tradition of silk farming at the Imperial Palace during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) as a way to promote sericulture in Japan, given that silk was a crucial export item to earn foreign currency. Emperor Meiji was Akihito's great-grandfather.

However, silk farming went into sharp decline as the country began modernizing and shifted to industrialization.

Early in the Showa Era (1926-1989), there were about 2.2 million silk farming households. In 2017, there were 338.

This cottage industry has been hard hit by the aging of farmers and a shortage of successors.

Michiko's role, while perhaps small, has tremendous symbolic significance, according to the Imperial Household Agency.

“The empress harbors a sense of empathy for people who have striven to sustain sericulture, an industry that shored up Japan’s modernization,” an agency official said. “She also wishes to serve as a bridge so as to pass down the tradition.”

Of the three silkworm species kept at the imperial cocoonery, threads from Koishimaru are regarded as the most suitable to restore centuries-old silk fabrics.

Koishimaru is the indigenous species that Japanese silk farmers have raised since ancient times. The silkworm has not been crossbred with other varieties.

Silk from Koishimaru was used to reproduce cloth covering the armrest for Emperor Shomu (701-756), one of hundreds of artifacts kept at Shosoin, a treasure storehouse in the World Heritage-listed Todaiji temple in Nara.

Koishimaru silk was also used to repair Kasuga Gongen Genki-e, a silk scroll painting from the early 14th century.

Many sericulture farmers stopped raising Koishimaru because the work is more demanding, compared with other species. Also, their cocoons are smaller.

Officials proposed ending Koishimaru cultivation in the palace grounds shortly after Akihito ascended to the throne in 1989, but the empress insisted on keeping the species as she wished to “preserve something old.”

Her commitment to sustaining sericulture at the Imperial Palace has drawn attention from overseas. An exhibition was held in Paris four years ago to introduce her activities to a foreign audience.

Akihito's eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will ascend to the throne on May 1, 2019. Crown Princess Masako, who will become Japan's next empress, will take over the tradition of imperial sericulture from Michiko.

Masako was briefed by Michiko about sericulture cultivation during her visit to the Imperial Palace on May 13. Akihito was also present during the session.

Masako, accompanied by Naruhito and their daughter, Princess Aiko, also visited the Momijiyama Cocoonery for the first time.