Ama – The Pearl Diving Mermaids of Japan (Warning: Nudity)

By Michael Gakuran | | Japan | 33 Comments |

One of the lesser-known but fascinating parts of Japanese culture is that of the Ama pearl divers. Ama (海女 in Japanese), literally means ‘woman of the sea’ and is recorded as early as 750 in the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry, 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.

maraini4

(Fosco Maraini)

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 Mikomoto, founder of Mikimoto Pearl, began his enterprise.

maraini11

(Fosco Maraini)

Mikimoto used Ama divers to look after his cultivated pearls on Mikimoto Pearl Island, near Toba city. This business was the main reason for the strong association between Ama and pearl diving among foreign observers that continues to this day. Another little-known fact is that the ‘traditional’ white attire we often see Ama divers wearing was also created by Mikimoto. He observed how surprised the foreign tourists visiting his pearl island were when seeing the Ama diving naked wearing only their traditional loincloth. (Source)

maraini9

(Fosco Maraini)

The role of the Mikimoto ama was to collect the oysters from the seabed so that the pearl-producing nucleus may be inserted. Once this critical process was completed, the ama then carefully returned the oysters to the seabed – in a place where they were protected from external dangers (such as typhoons and red tide).

In order to successfully complete this process, each diver would have to hold her breath for up to two minutes at a time in often freezing cold waters. Upon surfacing, the ama opened their mouths slightly and exhaled slowly, making a whistling sound known as ‘Isobue’.

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.

yoshiyuki-iwase-5

(Yoshiyuki Iwase)

Although the tradition is still maintained across many parts of Japan, the skinny-dipping practices of old have largely been lost. Since the Meiji era, divers wore goggles for clarity and from 1964, rubbery, black wetsuits were introduced.

osaki1

(Eishin Osaki)

One photographer in particular stands out with his photographs of the Ama. His name was Yoshiyuki Iwase (1904-2001). He was given a gift of a small Kodak camera when young and found his muse in the beautiful mermaids of the tired, coastal regions of Japan. Thanks to his efforts, we can take a step back in time and have a glimpse at what life was like working as an Ama diver, and also see his progression as a photographer moving into nude portraits. Since his website is now offline, I’m gathering up as many vintage pictures as I can for posterity that I’ll post as its own separate article soon.

yoshiyuki-iwase2

(Yoshiyuki Iwase)

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. Most 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.

海女

(Source)

With lack of young women to succeed their elders and modernisation of Japan’s fisheries however, this ancient practice is dwindling. Numbers have dropped to just 1/8th of what they once were. In 1956 there were 17,611 Ama in Japan but as of 2010 only 2,174 remained. Of those, 973 (nearly half) work in either Toba or Shima city, Mie prefecture. (FPCJ)

ama-shima-mie

(Source)

As technology progressed, the Ama communities were faced with decisions – adopt new tools and equipment or retain traditions? One of the most important parts of the decision-making was consideration of sustainability. New fishing methods could easily enable greater hauls and reduce work, but at the same time, increase the risk of overfishing and damage the delicate ecosystems that supported life for these coastal towns. Rules were introduced to prevent this.

ama1

(Yoshiyuki Iwase)

On Hegura island in Wajima city, rules state that abalone under 10 centimetres must be returned to the sea, with a punishment of two days without work if caught breaking them. Despite their efforts however, numbers of abalone and other shellfish have been in decline, in part due to overfishing, but also the rising sea temperatures which affects the growth of seaweed the shellfish eat. (Source)

modern-ama

(Source)

This culture of national mermaids diving for the nation is not only unique to Japan however. From 2007 Korea has been presenting its best case to have the Haenyo divers of Jeju Island listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. In similar fashion, Japan has now joined the races by recommending its own female divers, boosted by the popularity of a recent NHK drama ‘Amachan‘, starring a young girl who moves to the Tohoku region of Japan to became an Ama diver. (Asahi)

CD_H1_B

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.

To wrap up, below are a few interesting related media that I stumbled upon. Enjoy!

Depictions of Ama are featured in old works of art, such as the piece below by master Kuniyoshi. (Source)

ama-tako-kuniyoshi

Predictably, there are also films made around the profession. Ama are featured in the famous work ‘Tampopo’, as well as the rather less famous, and slightly bizarre 1959 horror movie ‘Ama Ghost House’ (海女の化物屋敷). (Trailer below).

Finally, I’ll leave you with a couple of short videos talking about the Ama diving profession. The first is a superb documentary with an interview with a former Ama diver.

The second, although I have serious doubts about the validity of the narration, has rather nice, colourful video shots to enjoy. Just ignore the dialogue.

Lastly then, here’s the poem from the Man’yoshu that mentions Ama divers.

沖つ島 い行き渡りて 潜くちふ 鮑玉もが 包みて遣らむ (万葉集

33 comments on “Ama – The Pearl Diving Mermaids of Japan (Warning: Nudity)
  1. Paul says:

    I remember as a kid at either Seaworld or Marineland there was an exhibit/show with pearl divers. I was always so intrigued at how they could hold their breath for so long. What a great read !!

  2. chaitanyak says:

    Fantastic.. I was just looking around for inspiration for a illustration/3dModelling project.. This will do!

  3. Sheila Parr says:

    Mikimoto have a museum in Toba where they have divers do demos in the. White anti shark outfits.

  4. Simona Ion says:

    Really beautiful!

  5. Jeffrey says:

    If you haven’t done so already, read Maraini’s “Meeting With Japan.” Great book about the country before and after the war.

  6. Den says:

    I found this website while cheating on a crossword puzzle. Thus my quest for a puzzle answer led me to find this great pearl. As a man I say with respect and awe, that I would have loved to have witnessed and shared in the time when women in loincloths dove into beautiful clear seas. No doubt someone of our era would romanticize such a time, but I embrace that illusion. I can’t wait to share the video with my wife and daughter.

  7. It’s a tradition I really admire. As a woman, this is a showing of empowerment that we should be proud of. Diving without any equipment to aid them, these women defied the odds and showed to the world that we, women, can do incredible feats.

    • Obbop says:

      “It’s a tradition I really admire. As a woman, this is a showing of empowerment that we should be proud of. Diving without any equipment to aid them, these women defied the odds and showed to the world that we, women, can do incredible feats.”

      An excellent reason that USA females should be required by USA federal law to sign up for the military draft as males are required to do. And, if the draft ever starts up again to achieve equity with the past an all-female military should be initiated until a rough parity has been attained with the numbers of males wounded and killed fighting war in prior conflicts. To ease the accounting let’s start with World War Two. Seems fair to me. Especially with today’s modern empowered women.

      • Ava says:

        Great idea, Obbop! Certainly you’re not being unnecessarily short-sighted in your lack of historical/political analysis. Surely your suggestion is much more logical than ending these wars which are started and run and funded predominantly by men in the first place! And for the sake of posterity, we’d better make up for all of those years that men had the sole vote and women were property of their husbands – let’s switch it up! And we should pay men less for the same work hour in the office, and nothing at all for whole lifetimes of unpaid house-husbandry and 24/7 parenthood. I’m glad you brought this up. Good talk.

      • Megan says:

        You’re assuming that women would not have been happy to go to war if they had been allowed which is stupid. Blaming women living now for events of the past is double stupid. You are also ruining a lovely comment stream with an aggressive attitude, shoo troll, we are here to read about beautiful things xxx

      • L says:

        way to disrespect and discredit the contribution of women during wartime, but moving along..

        She said that women can do incredible feats – not that all women and men can do the exact same incredible feats. I, as a small woman, would be pretty useless at war. That isn’t to say ALL women would be – my sister would probably be a great soldier. I can understand if your contribution here was ‘soldiers should be drafted based on strength and ability in combat.’ I’d agree with that. (But from what I can gather you’re taking issue because someone acknowledged that women can achieve ‘incredible feats’. Do you realise how pathetic and bizarre that is?I The hate must run deep!)

        Besides – You want to attain a rough parity for gender inequality of the past? LOL. Be my guest! But lets go the whole way shall we? and consider the full scope of what women of the past actually put up with. Or do you not know about or acknowledge that?
        Also lets change the gender representation in government and in big business also, in parity with the past! I mean, if women will be fighting these wars, it’s only fair that they be the ones starting them too!

      • Fraga says:

        Empowering and beautiful. Where are the strong American women repairing our sewers, welding underwater pipes and shoveling manure?

  8. Skye Aten says:

    What a beautiful tradition. I wish it was never changed or capitalized on. The world had such unique and amazing features before the industrial age took full hold. Now all that’s left is the memory of it all.

  9. Excellent article, i didn’t know about it, very interesting also the fact that it was done by women. Sponge diving, in some islands of Greece, was the only way to earn your living in the past, but it was men that were diving. A 15 kilograms stone was taking the divers down to the bottom quickly. They often went down to about 30 metres (100 ft) for up to 5 minutes.Some of them more than 100 years ago discovered the Antikythera Mechanism, the oldest analog computer.

  10. Enzo says:

    Look for a book called The Physiology of Breath Hold Diving and the Ama of Japan. A great scientific account of what these remarkable women can do.

  11. Bill g says:

    We need more nude pictures of these chicks.

  12. Thomas says:

    Very good website – helped me learn more on the diving history.

  13. Tom says:

    Dear Michael, pearl divers are a fixture in islands of the pacific, it’s great that this practice can be recognized by Unesco….

    A little note though: In japan female divers were non existent as men were the only ones allowed to do that until the 19th century. At that time the taxation system made women possible divers but also made their activities tax free which had the effect of pushing a lot of poor female into the job. Remember, It was NOT a good or well regarded job and the romanticism about it is only in retrospect.

  14. extrarice says:

    A few years ago I found a unique book by Horace Bristol on his photography of Japan, from 1949. Inside, there are 14 booklets of his photos and observations. One of the booklets talks about the Ama in a different location, and pearl cultivation in general. The photography is really amazing and provides a record of a way of life that is tending to become more rare. You can find out more about it here.

  15. meg says:

    I hadn’t heard of this either. Pretty cool!

  16. Jo says:

    I have never heard of this! How amazing! I would love to visit there some day and possibly try myself. Thank you for sharing!

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