Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Mesmerising Tradition of Japan’s Ama-San Free-Diving Women

The Ama-San women of Japan uphold a 2,000-year-old tradition of free-diving. Ama means “sea woman,” and the connection these women have with the ocean is one of utmost care and respect, something in this day and age we could all learn from.

Why Ama-San divers are treasured

What makes the Ama unique is that they rejected modern technology that would have made their working life much easier. They wanted to protect the abalone they dive for and prevent overfishing.

The ban remains to this day. They dive to depths of up to 80 feet, holding their breath for two minutes at a time without the aid of oxygen tanks or breathing apparatus. They harvest seaweed, oysters, and abalone off coastal Japan in the Mie Prefecture, 185 miles southwest of Tokyo.

painting of ama diver wearing red skirt holding a fishing knife toward a large octopus
The traditional Ama-San divers captured the imagination of artists. Left panel from ‘Ama and the Tako,’ Japanese ukiyo-e style woodblock painting by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Ama in art, literature and poetry

You can find references to the Ama in the 8th-century Man’yoshu collection of Japanese Poetry, and the 10th-century Sei Shonagnon’s Pillow Book. Along with ukiyo-e paintings by Japanese woodblock artists — a genre that presented “pictures of the floating world” to people. The Ama continue to capture the imagination of many photographers, filmmakers, and writers to this day.

There are two types of Ama-San

  1. Oyogido: they go out on boats to dive deeper depths of up to 80 feet.
  2. Kachido: they swim out to the diving areas close to shore, and dive to shallow depths of 6-14 feet.

These are the tools of their profession:

  • Tegane or Kaigane — a sharp tool used to wedge open stubborn abalone from the rocks.
  • wooden tub — connected to them by rope for storing the catch. Also used as a buoy to rest on and catch their breath in between dives.
  • Weighted belts — to aid their descent to deeper depths.
  • Goggles — introduced by the 1900s.
  • Wetsuits — up until the 1970s, they wore only a Fundoshi (loincloth) but now they wear wetsuits. Women have a greater tolerance to cold, as their bodies have an extra layer of fat, which allows them to dive for longer than men.
  • Tenugui — to cover their hair. This bandanna has writing on it to serve as a good luck charm, and is said to protect the diver from evil spirits.
black and white photo of Ama diver holding a barrel and traditional tool and wearing a Tenugi (bandana) in her hair
An Ama diver wears a Tenugui (bandanna) in her hair. Traditionally, the Tenugi would have writing on it to serve as a good luck charm to protect the diver from evil spirits. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Amagoya (Ama huts): a place to connect

The Ama hut or Amagoya was a nest for the group to gather to warm themselves in-between dives. The group valued teamwork, and it’s here that they would connect. The time spent in the hut was a chance for the younger divers to listen to the more experienced divers, and hear the secrets of where the best abalone were.

A lot of the breathing techniques and diving skills come with practice, but the valuable knowledge about the local reef environment was shared in the Amagoya.

Two female ama divers with goggles wearing black and red clothing and gloves holding a net and some tools
The practice of the Ama-San diver would normally be passed from mother to daughter, but the Ama profession is slowly dying out now due to the pressures of modern life. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The future of Japan’s Ama-San

The practice of the Ama-San diver would normally be passed from mother to daughter. But the Ama profession is slowly dying out now due to the pressures of modern life. However, some divers continue up to the age of 70.

And there are still some young ones out there who feel the pull of the ocean drawing them back to this traditional lifestyle.

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Jessica Kneipphttp://www.jessicakneipp.net
Jessica writes about films, and occasionally gets to direct them. Music, photography, art, poetry, reading and travel are pretty good too. She has a love of silent films, they are the closest she will ever get to "time travel."
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