Ama - the Japanese pearl divers


Ama, meaning ‘woman of the sea’ are amazing Japanese pearl divers. These women specialise in free diving up to 25 meters down into cold water without using oxygen tanks or other breathing equipment. Ama used special techniques to hold their breath for up to 2 minutes at a time; they would gather abalone, seaweed and other shellfish.

 

photos by Yoshiyuki Iwase

While traditional ama divers wore only a fundoshi (loincloth) for easy and quick movement in the water and a tenugui (bandanna) around their head to cover their hair, that meant that the ama were almost skinny-dipping. Those divers who descended the deepest would also wear a weighted belt around their waist to aid their descent. The most important tool for divers searching for abalone was the tegane or kaigane, a sharp spatula-like tool used to get the abalone from the rocks. The diving style and equipment stayed the same throughout the times because using specified equipment meant that the diver could stay under water longer and destroy the resources quickly. The ban remains to this day.

photo by fosco maraini

 

photo by eishin osaki

One of the reasons Ama are largely female is said to be their thicker layer of fat than their male counterparts to help them endure the cold water during long periods of diving. Another reason is the self-supporting nature of the profession, allowing women to live independently and foster strong communities. Some suggest that there used to be equal number of male and female divers but the men began to travel further out to sea in boats to pursue fishing.

photos by Yoshiyuki Iwase

The most amazing thing about ama is the old age to which these women are able to keep diving, majority of ama are aged in their 50s and 60s with some divers continuing to dive well into their 70s.

source unknown

 photo by nina poppe

photo by nina poppe

During the diving season, life for the ama revolves around the ama hut, or amagoya. This is the place where the divers gather in the mornings to prepare for the day, eating, chatting and checking their equipment. After diving they return to the hut to shower, rest and warm their bodies to recover from their day’s work. The atmosphere in the hut is one of relaxation and camaraderie, for six months of the year the women are free from the usual familial and social duties they are expected to perform, and they are able to connect with other women who share their love of the ocean and diving.

source unknown

photo by Yoshiyuki Iwase

In the heyday of abalone diving in the 1960s, a skilful ama could earn as much as 80,000 US dollars in a six-month diving season. As a result, talented ama was viewed as highly eligible and could take their pick of the local men when choosing a husband.

abalone pearls by pala gems

 

jewellery by daniel moesker

Unfortunately, with the decline of abalone stocks the earning power of the ama has also been reduced. Despite the efforts of the fisheries cooperatives to preserve precious resources through restricted diving hours, bag limits and size regulations, outside factors such as pollution and global warming have harmed the environment and affected the growth of abalone.

photo by Yoshijuki Iwase

In previous generations this was very rare and would explain why the job was attractive despite the harsh conditions and potential danger. It would be a great shame for the tradition of ama diving to disappear due to the pressures of modern life; we can only hope that the call of the ocean will be strong enough to attract a new generation of women who will be proud to be called ama.

photos by Fosco Maraini 

photo by Yoshiyuki Iwase

Sources: 

  1. gakuran.com/ama-the-pearl-diving-mermaids-of-japan/
  2. jpf.org.au/onlinearticles/hitokuchimemo/issue31
  3. The Japan Foundation, Sydney
  4. yoshiyuki-iwase.blogspot.com.au