“I believe that the work of the ama divers is incredible, and I want to continue doing it,” stated Kaori Arai, 39, who has been free-diving for the past decade.
For thousands of years, the ama divers, also known as sea women, have been diving into the sea without the aid of oxygen tanks to collect various treasures of the underwater world, such as abalone, seaweed, and turban shells, in order to make a living.
During a time when women’s employment opportunities were limited, the ama divers were a shining example of those who turned to unconventional means to earn a living. However, as younger generations of women pursue different career paths and elderly ama divers retire, their numbers have decreased. Presently, there are only around 500 ama divers left in Shima, one of the two cities in Mie Prefecture, along with Toba, which has the highest concentration of female divers in Japan.
History of Ama
Archaeological excavations in the Shima Peninsula have revealed the fascinating history of ama free-diving, a tradition dating back some 3,000 years. The Jomon (14,000 - 300 B.C.) and Yayoi (300 B.C. - 300 A.D.) period ruins contain evidence of tools called “awabiokoshi” that ama divers used to pry abalone from the reef and remove them from their shells.
During the 18th century, Ukiyo-e prints depicted the unique way of life of ama divers, bringing them into the public eye and raising their popularity.
Fishing Methods and Restrictions
Ama divers are of two types: the “funado” who works with a boatman, commonly her husband, called “tomae;” and the “kachido” who works alone. Their diving depths range from three to 20 meters, and they can hold their breath underwater for up to 50 seconds.
To preserve marine life, ama divers adhere to strict regulations, and one of them is not harvesting abalone smaller than 10.6 centimeters.
Outfits and Tools
Over time, the attire of ama divers evolved from wearing nothing to wearing white loincloths and wetsuits to protect themselves from the cold. They now also use various equipment, such as goggles, chisels, ring floats, lifelines, beach towels, and fins, to aid them in their diving activities.
Each fishing season, ama divers hold festivals to honor the sea god and pray for their safety and abundant fishing. These festivals are a vital part of the their diving tradition and reflect the close relationship between the ama divers and the ocean.
In addition to the festivals, ama divers also wear talisman symbols to protect themselves from the ocean’s bad spirits.
Ama free-diving is a challenging activity that exposes female divers to the dangers of the sea, but that’s not all. They also have to battle the harsh cold temperatures that come with diving in freezing waters. To counter this, they use fire pits called “kamado,” a traditional Japanese stove placed at the center of their huts to warm up the ama divers before and after their dives.
Resilient Ama Diving Culture Facing Environmental Challenges
Despite practicing their traditional fishing techniques for thousands of years, the ama divers in Mie Prefecture are facing significant challenges as a result of climate change and an aging population.
73-year-old Machiyo Yamashita, a 48-year veteran of the profession, has witnessed firsthand the decline in seaweed and abalone populations due to changing environmental conditions. However, despite these obstacles, Yamashita and her fellow ama divers in Shima City remain determined to maintain their way of life and preserve their unique cultural heritage.
In recognition of its cultural significance, Japan is seeking to have the ama diving culture included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. - Florenda Corpuz, Len Armea
*This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of the Filipino-Japanese Journal magazine. Additional information, photos and minor edits have been made by the editor.