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The Japanese culture always fascinated me, usually in a scary way, but occasionally in a more pleasant way.
Ama pearl divers represent one of Japan’s less-known and yet fascinating cultures. Ama (海女 in Japanese), literally translates to ‘woman of the sea’ and has been recorded as far back as 750 in the oldest Japanese poetry collection, the Man’yoshu.
These women specialised in freediving some 30 feet down into cold water wearing nothing more than a loincloth. Utilising special techniques to hold their breath for up to 2 minutes at a time, they would work for up to 4 hours a day in order to gather abalone, seaweed and other shellfish, and oysters which sometimes have pearls.
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 nude wearing only a loincloth, Even in modern times, ama dive without scuba gear or air tanks, making them a traditional sort of free-diver.
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. Perhaps most surprisingly however, is the old age to which these women are able to keep diving. Many Ama are elderly women (some even surpassing 90 years of age) who have practiced the art for many, many years, spending much of their life at sea.
Women began diving as ama as early as 12 and 13 years old, taught by elder ama. Despite their early start, divers are known to be active well into their 70s and are rumored to live longer due to their diving training and discipline.
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. In the 1940s, 6,000 ama were reported active along the coasts of Japan, while today ama practice at numbers more along the scale of 60 or 70 divers in a generation.
While traditional ama divers wore only a fundoshi (loincloth) to make it easier to move in the water and a tenugui (bandanna) around their head to cover their hair, Mikimoto ama wore a full white diving costume and used a wooden barrel as a buoy. They were connected to this buoy by a rope and would use it to rest and catch their breath between dives.
The most important tool for divers searching for abalone (the most prized and lucrative catch) was the tegane or kaigane, a sharp spatula-like tool used to pry the stubborn abalone from the rocks.
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.
The most profitable pursuit however was diving for pearls. Traditionally for Ama, finding a pearl inside an oyster was akin to receiving a large bonus while they went about their ancestral practice of collecting shellfish. That changed when Kokichi Mikimoto, founder of Mikimoto Pearl, began his enterprise.
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,[clarification needed] 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 ama were expected to endure harsh conditions while diving, such as freezing 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.
Diving naked made it easier to keep warm without wet clothes clinging onto their bodies. In Japan, showing off bodies was a pretty common practice, including communal nude baths in natural hot springs, onsen.
After World War II, Kokichi Mikimoto employed Ama for his famous pearl company but designed a white diving costume for them after noting the surprise of foreigners who observed their work. As a matter of fact, Ama began covering up as western tourists who arrived opposed their nudity. These white suits were also believed to ward off hungry sharks.
Such a shame that our western ‘moral’ values destroyed an ancient tradition. It is not like there is no nudity on western beaches.
During the 1960s, these celebrated white shrouds were phased out in favor of the wetsuit – a significant compromise that allowed the Ama to continue working throughout the year in the temperate waters of the Japanese archipelago.
While ama gather various foods such as seaweed, shellfish, and sea urchin, it is the abalone that is most prized and lucrative. In the heyday of abalone diving in the 1960s, a skillful ama could earn as much as 80,000 US dollars in a six-month diving season. As a result, talented ama were viewed as highly eligible and could take their pick of the local men when choosing a husband.
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.
While in the past it may have been possible to make a good living from abalone diving alone, most ama now dive to supplement their main income of farming or other work.
Although perhaps the scantily-clad, romanticised image of the profession is a thing of the past, there’s still a rich history and culture that needs to be conveyed to younger generations. The tourism industry at Mikimoto Pearl is a great start to help preserve the memory, but the age-old fishing traditions held by small coastal villages are definitely in need of special attention to make sure their heritage isn’t forgotten completely.
I have to admit I did enjoy doing this blog. It was a welcome distraction of my usual heavy WW2 and Holocaust blogs.
If any one is offended by the nudity, get over it it is the 21st century.
Ama – The Pearl Diving Mermaids of Japan (Warning: Nudity)
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