Diving into Ise-Shima's ancient womanly traditions

Cyril Roger Brossard

Well-known member
Aug 30, 2012
As seen here.

Japan's ama have been holding their breath underwater for 3,000 years

Special to The Japan Times
The hut of the pearl divers is more modern than I'd expected. Here, in the village of Osatsu along the craggy coast of the Ise-Shima region in Mie Prefecture, the small concrete building named Hachimankamado blends in with its 21st-century surroundings. But inside the hut the traditions are age-old, as a group of Japan's storied ama (women divers) prepare food, share stories and warm their bodies before a dip in the sea.

Free-diving femme: Reiko Nomura, 80, has been diving most of her life. The all-female ama divers of the Ise-Shima region in Mie Prefecture descend without breathing apparatus, instead simply holding their breath as they plunder the briny deep for abalone and other treats, which they sometimes cook up for visitors to their traditional huts.MANDY BARTOK PHOTOS

Reiko Nomura, the hut's outgoing and vibrant 80-year-old host, welcomes us in with a smile and wave of her hand. We sit, myself and my guide Tatsuya Sato, arranging ourselves to face the burning embers of the hut's fire pit. Nomura offers us tea and starts chatting away, the stories of her craft bubbling forth practically unbidden.
No one really taught Nomura how to become a kachido ama, a woman who dives for abalone and other sea creatures by swimming out from the seashore with a basket and a weighted belt. As a child growing up around the culture of the ama, or ama-san as they are respectfully known, she spent her days with her mother in the divers' huts and eventually just got into the water and started swimming. From the age of 10 until just a few years ago, most of Nomura's life was spent beneath the waves.
Before the advent of wet suits, it wasn't an easy life, either. Nomura still sports the traditional white uniform of the ama — the color allegedly keeps away the sharks — when she meets with visitors. The fabric isn't overly thin but it seems no match for the chill of the ocean. In the past, ama would dive twice a day, for 30-40 minutes in the morning and again in the afternoon. In the interim, they'd gather in the smoky huts to feast, gossip and attempt to bring feeling back to their extremities. When wet suits became fashionable, they'd extend their dives to an hour and a half or two hours at a time, but the communal gathering at the huts remained.
Though the Mikimoto Pearl Island museum is just up the coast in Toba, it wasn't the glint from an oyster's shell that drew these women to the sea. The prize catch for most ama is still the local abalone, with clams, snails and sea urchin thrown in the mix depending on the season. A fellow ama cooks up a few of these delicacies for us on an open fire in the middle of the hut. When Nomura delivers them to my plate, the clams are still bubbling in their own juices. I tackle the sazai first — a chewy snail that was caught just offshore. It's good, but doesn't melt in your mouth like the ōsara, a meaty bivalve that I could have gladly eaten in bushels.
I'm curious to see if Nomura would mind demonstrating the isobue, the piercing exhalation of breath after a dive that's been termed "the sea whistle." She can't, she concedes, and explains it's because her busy schedule prevents her from diving anymore. Instead, she calls in Mitsue Okano, a middle-aged ama with greater lung capacity who still heads out into the sea every day. Okano gladly voices the low-pitched whistle, and I'm struck by its relation to the mournful blast of a foghorn.
Tales from the deep: The ama display at the Toba Sea-Folk Life Museum.
I can't help but ask the standard question: Has Nomura seen the James Bond movie "You Only Live Twice," which featured a brief scene of an ama emerging from the waves?
She looks puzzled and says no; so does my guide. "But," she says with a smile, "that's not surprising. We don't have a movie theater here!"
They didn't have much else until the electricity lines arrived 50 years ago. Nomura recalls her family's first refrigerator and mentions several times how they longed for a TV. It might give the appearance of a sheltered life, but Nomura and many of her diving colleagues are well-traveled. She regales me with stories of trips around Japan, from Okinawa to Hokkaido and back again, and excitedly describes a cross-Canada train journey, just one of her many international adventures.
"What would you be if you weren't an ama?" I ask, imagining a career that would take her around the globe.
"A schoolteacher," she answers immediately, and laughs at my surprise. Her older sister ended up in a similar position, and Nomura believes she could have followed in her footsteps.
Nomura's own daughters, however, have abandoned their mother's profession, preferring the pull of the city to the hard life of a diver. "They used to watch me shiver by the hut fire, trying to warm up between dives," she explains. It wasn't one of the profession's more glamorous perks, and by the time Osatsu women started using wet suits, there was no chance for her daughters to reconsider. They were already long gone for Osaka, along with many of the region's younger generation. Ise-Shima might still have the largest population of ama in Japan, at around 1,000 divers, but it's a far cry from the 6,000 or so who used to ply the waters here during the early Showa Era, from 1926 till around the start of World War II.

The women of ama hut Hachimankamado in Osatsu, Mie Prefecture (Nomura standing in the center) welcome visitors by appointment with stories and a meal.
I ask if she's worried that the culture of the ama might die out. Maybe, she admits, but a recent visit to an elementary school reinforced her belief that her livelihood is still vital. "When I asked who wanted to become an ama diver," she says, "at least half of the class raised their hands!"
Outside Hachimankamado, we pose for pictures with all of the hut's ama, and Nomura offers me the chance to blend in a bit more with the crowd. As soon as I nod my approval, I'm swathed in a white diving costume from head to waist. A long-sleeve shirt is tied tightly at my wrists, while my legs are encased in a thick patterned apron.
Diver Okano wraps the snowy cloth around my head, bonnet-style, though I notice my "costume" has no symbol of protection. Normally, ama wear a star (seiman) or cross-hatch (doman) design just over their forehead to safeguard them from evil spirits and ill fortune. When I point out to Nomura that my headgear is curiously blank, she assures me the charms are only for those who are actually diving. Apparently, while I may be dressing the part, there's (thankfully) no expectation that I'll be seeing any action!

Up the road, I beef up my ama knowledge even more with a visit to the Toba Sea-Folk Museum. Sato, a former museum employee himself, steers me first to the video of a funado ama. Unlike Nomura and her hut members who swim out into the waves unassisted, funado ama dive from boats anchored farther offshore, usually manned by their capable fisherman husbands. Armed with a knife and a 20 kg weight on a rope, they descend to depths of 15-20 meters in search of abalone and other shellfish. When their breath runs out, a tug on the rope brings them quickly to the surface to deposit their catch.
A reconstructed ama hut shows what a young Nomura might have played in as a child: round wooden walls, blackened from the smoke of the cooking fore, a hole in the roof thatch for the fumes to escape and a collection of hand-woven nets draped in a corner. Nearby, a display of lethal-looking implements highlights the various tools needed in the underwater world: A flat blade might suffice for slicing an abalone off of a rock, while hooks and handled baskets are more effective when the prize is sea urchin.

Downstairs, a collection of ancient tools testifies to the long history of these sea women. While the first written mention of women divers in Japan was on a scroll from the year 927, the bone knives and other accoutrements found on the nearby sea floor and in the shoals have been carbon-dated as far back as 3,000 years.
Whether the harvesting methods were the same or not is unclear, Sato concedes. If true, however, it would make ama one of the oldest professions for women in Japanese history. And while old methods are dying out at a rapid-fire pace in our modern world, thanks to the dedication of Nomura and her fellow divers, perhaps this is one tradition that's here to stay.
Thanks for this one! I love stories about these diving women!!

You are welcome.
You should then read this too.
As seen here.

Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012

Tohoku's 'ama' divers back in water

MORIOKA, Iwate Pref. — "Ama" divers Yaeko Nakagawa and Hiroko Omukai, who harvest sea urchins off Iwate Prefecture, returned to work just four months after the March 2011 disasters to help their wrecked coastal city of Kuji flourish again and preserve the tradition.

Testing the waters: "Ama" divers Hiroko Omukai (left) and Yaeko Nakagawa pose Sept. 5 in the coastal city of Kuji, Iwate Prefecture, which bore the full brunt of the March 2011 tsunami. KYODO

"Ama diving is tough and challenging, but I want people to see that we are hanging in instead of fleeing," said Omukai, 52.
The Kosode coastal area of Kuji is a popular tourist spot and the northernmost place in Japan where visitors can watch ama divers hunt for urchins. They operate from July to September.
Ama divers, who are all female, traditionally collect urchins, shellfish and other marine products without the use of modern equipment such as scuba gear or air tanks.
"This job is extremely rewarding and satisfactory when I bring sea urchins to the surface and an audience breaks into cheers," Nakagawa, 55, said.
The March 11, 2011, tsunami that laid waste to the northeast coastline swept away almost all of the fishing boats and nets on the beach where the two women are based, but their swimsuits and tools somehow survived intact.
Nakagawa and Omukai both said they felt afraid the first time they went back into the water, as the local breakwaters had all been swept away and high waves kept buffeting them and often smashing them against rocks.
But 1? years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, seaweed is starting to recover on the seafloor and the sea urchin population, which feeds off it, is starting to recover too, they said.
Nakagawa has around 30 years of experience as a sea urchin diver, while Omukai started about 10 years ago, but despite the gap in experience they treat each other as equals and get along like sisters.
The two have been greatly encouraged by the recent formation of an ama club by seven local high school girls.
Nakagawa and Omukai said they feel happy when diving with the club's members, who may one day take over from them and keep the tradition going in the area.
They are also looking forward to a TV program called "Ama chan" that NHK plans to broadcast next spring, focusing on ama divers in Kuji and centered around a girl who wants to become one.
Due to the general interest, kindly consider the following additions.
In a few fishing villages along the coast of Japan, there are an amazing group of women known as ama. Ama, meaning ‘sea woman’, are free divers, women who make their living by diving to depths of up to 25 metres without using oxygen tanks or other breathing apparatus. Instead, the ama rely on their own skill and breathing techniques to propel them to the bottom of the ocean and back to the surface again while holding their breath for up to two minutes at a time. Even more remarkable, in recent years as the population has aged and young people leave the villages for the city, the majority of ama are now aged in their 50s and 60s, with some divers continuing to dive well into their 70s. While there are also male divers (also known as ama, but using a different kanji character to distinguish between male and female) in some areas in Japan, it is the women divers who have attracted the most interest and captured the imaginations of Japanese and Westerners alike.
The history of the ama dates back at least 2000 years. There are references to the ama in famous texts such as the 8th century Man’yoshu collection of Japanese poetry and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book from the 10th century. The ama have also been immortalised in ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Edo period and even infiltrated Western popular culture by achieving the somewhat dubious honour of appearing as a Bond girl in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967).

There are various theories for the dominance of women as free divers, some suggest that in ancient times there were equal numbers of male and female divers but when the men began to travel further out to sea in boats to pursue fishing the women stayed close to shore, diving for seaweed and shellfish at the bottom of the ocean and this tradition was passed down to the daughters and granddaughters. The widely-held belief among amadivers themselves is that women are able to withstand the cold water better because of extra layers of fat on their body and are therefore able to stay in the water for longer periods and collect a bigger catch.
Traditional ama divers used a minimum amount of equipment, they usually wore only a fundoshi (loincloth) while diving to make it easier to move in the water and a tenugui (bandanna) around their head to cover their hair. The tenugui might also have good luck charms written on it to protect the diver from evil spirits. Ancientama divers also used a wooden tub or barrel as a buoy, this buoy was connected to them by a rope and they would use it to rest and catch their breath between dives. Those divers who descended the deepest would also wear a weighted belt around their waist to aid their descent. 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.

ama9 by Felix Seuffert.jpg
Photo by Felix Seuffert
In the early 1900s goggles were introduced and quickly adopted by the ama. Around this time air hoses and hand pumps were also introduced from abroad and used in shellfish diving in some regions but it quickly became obvious that a diver using such equipment could stay submerged for longer and would soon destroy the resource base. In an effort to protect the abalone and prevent overfishing air apparatus were banned by the fisheries cooperatives that all commercial ama divers must belong to and the ban remains to this day.
However, other new equipment has been introduced over the years. Until the 1960s, many ama, especially those in villages along the Pacific Ocean coast of Japan, continued to dive wearing only fundoshi, or cotton shorts, a remarkable sight captured by Japanese photographer Iwase Yoshiyuki in his series of photographs taken on the Chiba peninsula in the first half of the twentieth century. With the introduction of the wetsuit to Japan in the 1970s, the sight of a half-naked ama diver became rare and wetsuits are now an accepted form of equipment for diving.
The advent of wetsuits did alter the working conditions of ama to some extent. In the past there were no restrictions set by the cooperative on how many hours a diver could work, when dressed only in fundoshi or a thin white cotton outfit called isogi, ama divers were prevented from working long hours and therefore overfishing by the coldness of the water. However, when wetsuits were introduced and extended the amount of time that a diver could stay in the water, the fisheries cooperative imposed rules to protect the resources, in particular abalone, and prevent overfishing. The cooperatives decided to shorten the diving season and the number of hours per day that a diver could stay in the water, typically 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the afternoon in spring and two hours twice a day in summer. In the past ama may have spent up to six hours in the water per day, therefore with the introduction of wetsuits the pressure to find as many abalone as possible in a shorter time has increased.
Although ama diving practices and techniques vary from region to region, there are 2 general types of ama.Oyogido or kachido divers don’t use a boat, instead they swim out to the diving areas close to shore and dive to quite shallow depths of 2 to 4 metres. These divers are usually novices who perfect their breathing and diving technique in the relatively safer environment closer to shore. Older ama who are no longer able to dive to deeper depths may also engage in this type of diving.
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Funado are the most experienced divers who have worked their way up the ranks and are able to make the best income. Funado work with a single boatman (often their husband) and dive from a boat further from the shore, descending to depths of up to 25 metres. In order to descend to such depths quickly funado hold a 10-15kg weight attached to a rope on their way down to the sea bed. When the funado is almost out of breath and ready to ascend she tugs on the rope attached to her waist and the boatman pulls her to the surface using a pulley system on the boat.
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. In the past, when career opportunities for women in a small village were limited and married women were expected to stay at home under the watchful eye of their mother in law, life as an ama must have been an attractive prospect despite the tough conditions and potential dangers.
The amagoya was also a place of learning for novice divers. Unlike other traditional crafts, there is no formal apprentice-style system of training for ama divers. While diving skills such as breathing techniques can be acquired relatively easily through practice, the most valuable knowledge, that of the best places to find abalone are a closely guarded secret, even between mother and daughter divers. However, in the amagoya, by listening to the more experienced divers’ recap of their day, novice divers could begin to gather valuable knowledge about the local reef environment and therefore where the most abalone are likely to be found.
While ama gather various foods such as seaweed, shellfish and sea urchin, it is the abalone which is most prized and lucrative. In the heyday of abalone diving in the 1960s, a skilful 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.

ama11 by Tony Wu.jpg
Photo by Tony Wu.
In a trend that mirrors the general population in Japan, the ama population is ageing rapidly. Many of the divers active today are in their 50s and 60s, with very few ama aged in their 20s and 30s. The work of the ama seems to be a unique opportunity for Japanese women to engage in competitive, exciting, potentially lucrative work that provides a great amount of freedom and independence but at the same time allows women to be part of a tight-knit group of fellow enthusiasts that life as a housewife would not have afforded. In previous generations this was very rare and would explain why the job was attractive despite the harsh conditions and potential danger. In this day and age when career opportunities for women have expanded greatly and factors such as environmental damage and economic problems have reduced the earning power of ama divers, younger women may not be as attracted to the job. It would be a great shame for the tradition of ama diving to disappear due to the pressures of modern life, we can only hope that the call of the ocean will be strong enough to attract a new generation of women who will be proud to be called ama.
In an effort to shed light on the fascinating tradition of the ama, The Japan Foundation, Sydney will host an exhibition titled AMA by Sabina Maselli, 2010 Facetnate! finalist. In her exhibition, Sabina uses video and sound installations designed to immerse visitors in the undersea world of the ama.
Article by The Japan Foundation, Sydney.

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I've been wanting to reply to this thread, but I don't know what to say. I'm speechless from the beauty and history of these women, true mermaids. Not only do they forge a community outside many of their normal cultural bounds, but they have rare and valuable knowledge and skills that allow them to make a living and share a rich lifestyle, if not one of every modern comfort.

Did you all see this link that Cyril included? It was a bit hidden in the text above.

Thank you, Cyril! This is one of my favorite stories ever.
I've been wanting to reply to this thread, but I don't know what to say. I'm speechless from the beauty and history of these women, true mermaids. Not only do they forge a community outside many of their normal cultural bounds, but they have rare and valuable knowledge and skills that allow them to make a living and share a rich lifestyle, if not one of every modern comfort.

Did you all see this link that Cyril included? It was a bit hidden in the text above.

Thank you, Cyril! This is one of my favorite stories ever.

Most welcome.
link was indeed "hidden" in this sentence: Japanese photographer Iwase Yoshiyuki in his series of photographs taken on the Chiba peninsula in the first half of the twentieth century. from post#9.