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  • Writer's pictureRobin Yong

Ama Divers of Japan 海女の物語

Updated: Jan 14

Ama (海女, "sea women") are Japanese female divers famous for collecting pearls, though traditionally their main catch is seafood.

Japanese tradition holds that the practice of ama may be 2,000 years old.

Records of female pearl divers, or ama, date back as early as AD 927 in Japan's Heian period. Early ama were known to dive for seafood and were honored with the task of retrieving abalone for shrines and imperial emperors. Ama traditionally wear white, as the colour represents purity and also to possibly ward off sharks. Traditionally and even as recently as the 1960s, ama dived wearing only a loincloth, but in the 20th century, the divers adopted an all-white sheer diving uniform in order to be more presentable while diving. Even in modern times, ama dive without scuba gear or air tanks, making them a traditional sort of free-diver.

Pearl diving ama were considered rare in the early years of diving. However, Mikimoto Kōkichi's discovery and production of the cultured pearl in 1893 produced a great demand for ama. He established the Mikimoto Pearl Island in Toba and used the ama's findings to grow his business internationally. Nowadays, the pearl-diving ama are viewed as a tourist attraction at Mikimoto Pearl Island. The number of ama continue to dwindle as this ancient technique becomes less and less practiced, due to disinterest in the new generation of women and the dwindling demand for their activity.

The world of the ama is one marked by duty and superstition. One traditional article of clothing that has stood the test of time is their headscarves. The headscarves are adorned with symbols such as the seiman and the douman, which have the function of bringing luck to the diver and warding off evil. The ama are also known to create small shrines near their diving location where they will visit after diving in order to thank the gods for their safe return. The ladies also don’t dive on dates which include the number seven (7th, 17th, and 27th) because these days are considered unlucky. They take a break during winter when the waters become very cold and during typhoon seasons which stretches from mid September to the end of October.

The ama are expected to endure harsh conditions while diving, such as cold temperatures and great pressures from the depths of the sea. Through the practice, many ama were noted to lose weight during the months of diving seasons. Ama practiced a breathing technique in which the divers would release air in a long whistle once they resurfaced from a dive. This whistling became a defining characteristic of the ama, as this technique is unique to them.

Once their fishing day is over, the Ama divers rest in a cabin they share with other Ama fellows. Around the hearth, they change clothes, warm up and talk about their activity. This convivial moment is followed by a lunch cooked with some of the day’s catch.

In some villages, Ama women in their authentic attire, welcome guests and prepare at the fireplace at the center of the cabin to grill freshly picked seafood. The meal is may be varied and comes with the usual rice, seaweed salad and tea.

On this trip, I met up with Shizue, aged 67 and who has been diving for about a decade now.

Most ama divers today begin their career after 40 years of age, (it takes about 10 years to fully learn the trade), with many diving well into their 70s. Shizue enjoys her work and does 2 dives a day, one in the late morning and another in the early afternoon. Each dive goes for an hour or so. On a good day she can make about USD$1000.

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