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Innovative Products Could Revive a Dying Industry

November 17, 2000
Silk is finding its way into an array of products, including candies, soaps, and even noodles.

Cocoons that spin silk are coming into use in various new materials and products, and in most unexpected ways. Soft drinks, cosmetics, candies, contact lenses, and other goods containing cocoon extract and promising health and beauty benefits are proving popular. Meanwhile, biotechnological research is underway on putting silkworms to medicinal use. Japan's sericulture industry was once among the biggest in the world, but it has long been in decline, overwhelmed by cheaper imported silk. Can innovative uses like these reverse the fortunes of a waning industry?

Wondrous Benefits
A soft drink christened Silk Water, sold by food maker Morita Co. since February 1999, contains a protein found in silk known as glycine. Glycine is said to check the production of melanin in the skin, which causes tanning, freckles, and blotches. The fruit-flavored beverage is also spiked up with 18 amino acids extracted from silk by processing it into powder and dissolving this in water. Riding the wave of the ongoing bihaku (whitening) fad, the product has been faring well, and the manufacturer has set an aggressive target of 1.5 billion yen (13.6 million U.S. dollars at 110 yen to the dollar) in annual sales.

Seiren Co., a top dyer of filament fibers, manufactures a line of cosmetics using cocoon extract. Observing that the hands of workers who manually process silk are smooth despite long hours of exposure to water, the firm embarked on joint research with Hiroshima University and found sericin, another silk protein, to be responsible for the phenomenon. In addition to cosmetics, Seiren has blended the protein into clothing fibers. The sericin-imbued fibers, which are gentle to atopic and otherwise sensitive skin, are now used by major lingerie makers. Products utilizing sericin rang up 350 million yen (3.2 million dollars) during fiscal 1997 (April 1997 to March 1998), and the sales total is expected to jump to 1.2 billion yen (10.9 million dollars) in fiscal 2000.

Other silk-related products on the market include candy containing silk fibers--offered as a health food--and shampoo and conditioner enriched with silk protein.

In 1997 the National Institute of Sericultural and Entomological Science of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, with the cooperation of major contact lens maker Seed Co., succeeded in developing the basic technology for applying silk protein to the production of soft contact lenses. According to the institute, contact lenses made with silk protein are friendlier to the eyes than those made with synthetic materials.

Inspired by the ability of silkworms to produce large amounts of protein in the form of silk, the institute is also studying the possibility of having them produce pharmaceutical ingredients. By inserting the genes of substances beneficial to human health in silkworm chromosomes, it hopes to breed "cocoon factories."

Saving a Dwindling Industry
Prior to World War II, silk thread was one of Japan's major exports and was shipped across the globe. After the war, however, the development of synthetic fibers and the gradual easing of import restrictions led to the industry's decline, and by 1975 silk was no longer exported. Still, that year some 250,000 sericulture farms were producing roughly 90,000 tons of cocoons. Today, however, both figures have dwindled to almost zero.

In April 2000 the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Ministry launched an investigative committee on silk and new materials, comprising scholars and representatives of private firms. Rather than aiming to compete with imports, the committee is working to develop new, value-added materials and products and to create new product lines.

Traditional clients of the silk industry, such as kimono textile makers, worry that if domestic production of silk stops altogether, countries exporting the material to Japan will raise their prices. Maintaining a certain level of domestic production is a question of life and death for such companies. The emergence of various innovative uses of silk, which boosts demand, could be a ray of hope for all businesses in silk-related fields.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.