Splash into the rapidly disappearing world of ama, female free divers who make the ocean part of their livelihood.
Meet the ama of Japan, an astonishing group of women who make their living—and stake their lives—on the sea. The ama are free-diving fisherwomen who’ve been documented for at least 3,000 years, each day plunging into icy waters, with no special breathing apparatus, in order to harvest delicacies such as shellfish, seaweed and pearls. An ama will dive hundreds of times on any given day, and she can hold her breath for up to two minutes at a time and swim up to 30 feet deep, with just a simple blade to help capture her precious cargo.
While some of the oldest records about ama use gender-neutral kanji characters (海人) that translate to “people of the sea,” most have been women, so the term “ama” typically is written and translated as “women of the sea” (海女). This is because women were long thought to be better suited to the work because their bodies have a higher proportion of body fat, making them better able to retain body heat. The ocean waters were also the reason that traditional ama wore only a loincloth (fundoshi) when they dove, since cold, wet clothing could turn a temporary chill while swimming into something much more dangerous on land. All that changed when Kokichi Mikimoto began employing ama to look after his cultured pearls, and had them wear all-white outfits for the sake of Western tourists, who were shocked to see women diving in the near-nude. The practice continued to change over time, while the divers themselves remained powerfully connected to both the past and the present.
Individual ama are incredibly resilient, many working into their 80s—but the practice itself is weakening: younger generations are less likely to take on such difficult work when there are many safer options, and veteran ama are increasingly concerned about asking young women to dive in the era of climate change. There were around 10,000 ama practicing just after WWII, but now there are only 2,000, about half of whom live in Mie Prefecture. The prefecture also houses a shrine to Ishigami, a god believed to protect ama from the dangers of their work. Modern technology has helped mitigate some of the hazards, but they still take risks every day. An unexpected storm could make the water dangerously choppy, and a misplaced hand or an unfavourably shifting rock could result in severed fingers, or a forced swim that outpaces even the ama’s skillfully held breath. And while many now wear wetsuits in their day-to-day dives, they often put on the white suit for tourists, whose interest is increasingly key to sustaining this dwindling art. Nine prefectures (Iwate, Miyagi, Ishikawa, Fukui, Shizuoka, Mie, Tottori, Yamaguchi and Tokushima) have committed to the preservation and promotion of ama culture, part of a larger movement that’s been working since 2007 to get ama fishing designated as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Are you curious to know more about ama—or inspired to follow their lead? Here are a few tips to immerse yourself in the culture of these unique free divers, and perhaps do a little bit to help sustain this beautiful practice.
DO celebrate ama culture.
Start planning now for the Shirongo Matsuri in Toba City, Mie Prefecture, which celebrates the wondrous ama every July.
DO NOT try it yourself.
Not even if you’re a strong swimmer. Ama train for years under an experienced senior to develop their special skills.
DO get dramatic.
Check out the 2013 TV show Amachan, a charming story inspired by these real-life mermaids.