In Japan, there’s an ancient tradition of diving dating back to the 8th century Heian period which is still being practiced today; they are the Ama – “sea women” in Japanese. Historically, the divers have been women as they’re able to hold their breath for longer and withstand the freezing temperatures, courtesy of their higher fat content.
Ama divers often start training as early as 12 years old and they tend to have long careers; some continue diving even at the age of 80. They traditionally harvest a range of local seafoods but have adapted as needs changed. Swimming has long been regarded as one of the best exercises for health so it’s rumoured that their aquatic lifestyle has a prolonging effect on their lives.
Unfortunately, the tradition is slowly being lost. In the 1940s, there were 6000 Ama divers. Today, there are only around 2000. Perhaps it’s surprising that this quaint way of fishing hasn’t completely vanished despite the advent of industrialisation and modern technology. But the Japanese have always been rather good at protecting their culture and tradition.
After a millennium of diving, the Ama face changes
Ama were originally trained to catch seafood but they experienced a period of great demand when Mikimoto Kōkichi discovered cultured pearls in 1893. To cultivate pearls: the right oysters must be found first; divers then insert a nucleus that becomes the pearl; and then they hide the oyster somewhere safe in the sea. Some pearls can take several years to cultivate. And Mikimoto saw how the Ama’s knowledge and longevity could look after this lengthy process. The Ama realised how this new business could preserve their tradition, but also their livelihoods. You can still see Ama divers at Mikimoto Pearl Island today.
Over the centuries, the Ama have had to adapt to changes. They initially dived in just loincloths and were attached to their boat by a rope. But during the Meiji era, Japan began to industrialise and modernise. This led to an influx of new tourists who began to see all of Japan’s intriguing traditions, including the Ama.
At first, they were enthralled by their ability to freedive for so long but questions about safety and indecency were raised. After some resistance, the Ama felt compelled to start diving in white body suits.
The sound of the Ama
If you’re lucky enough to see them, you’ll hear a majestic, low whistle dance across the sea. This is a breathing technique they employ when they surface. Divers release air in a long whistle called isobue (“ocean whistle”) which helps them control their breathing. It clearly works as they can hold their breath for up to two minutes.
Nowadays, they dive in scuba goggles but those breathing techniques are still vital as there’s no space for other modern gear such as air tanks. Ama believe in using minimal equipment and only taking what they need from the ocean so that its resources aren’t depleted before they can recover.
After a long four-hour shift, the Ama end their working day with a visit to a nearby shrine to thank the gods for their safe return. It’s amazing to think that this sustainable way of fishing has been preserved for over 1200 years. But despite Japan’s best efforts, the Ama may not be around forever so be sure to check them out before it’s too late.