This is part of a series exploring Japan while I research the history and culture of Japan for my book series, The Messengers. Feel free to point out any errors or if you have anything to add!
There were never very many traditional professions for women in Japan, but one that still continues are the “sea women” or ama. Traditionally women, these “Japanese mermaids” are skilled divers who look for seaweed, shells, and pearls. Why women though?
According to the Japan Times, they cite the reason is that because women have more body fat than men, they can retain heat better. Which is crucial for divers when they rely so much on the conditions of nature to do their work. Even wearing just loincloths, Ama dove even in the winter.
AN ANCIENT TRADITION
The tradition of Ama go back thousands of years. Two of Japan’s oldest records, the Manyoshu (traditionally,the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry) and the Kojiki (traditionally, Japan’s oldest historical record), both make references to ama or Shima (the area known for its abundance of seafood). There have also been archaeological finds of ancient ama tools and other artifacts.
According to the Samurai Archives, they note that this is how the Ama traditionally dived:
“Some ama operated from shore, while other dove from boats; both modes of operation involved very little capital investment or physical equipment. Divers typically wore nothing but a loincloth and a belt of rice-straw around their waist, which was used to hold their tools: a knife used to scrape the shells from the rock, and an empty shell called kirigai which could be left as a marker of a site she wished to return to. The inside of the kirigai caught the light and sparkled, making it more visible from above the water, allowing the ama to find her spot again; it also served as a claim to the site, which other ama might be expected to respect. The ama was typically underwater for 30 seconds up to a couple of minutes at a time, and might spend much of the day diving, with periods of rest which she would use to get warm. Even in summer, the water could be cold enough to merit keeping a brazier aboard the boat, or onshore, for this purpose.” (Samurai Archives Wiki)
As the Japan Times and Samuari Archives notes, the techiniques and tools of Ama would be passed on from mother to daughter. Learning how to swim and dive would begin at a young age and they would start professionally diving in their late teens. Women even continue still to dive into their late 60s or 70s. Men traditionally did not dive themselves, except in times of hardships, but would be around to help. They would be in charge of the boat or helping in and around their warming shack on the beach.
Although jobs like diving were traditionally looked down upon for their association with impurity, Ama enjoyed special privileges in the Edo Period. Because they often dived for abalone (which was prized by the wealthy and elite) or pearls, they were given a degree of freedom and wealth unusual for Japanese women then. They were allowed though to access the waters of other villages which allowed them to travel frequently. They would often travel seasonally to help other areas with their whole family and return to their hometowns briefly.
MODERN TIMES: NOW A CULTURAL HERITAGE, BUT IN DECLINE
A browsing of references to ama though do show that they were romanticized or show in erotic standards. Despite that they were seen in a lesser position, more manly, and unlike most women, could earn her own living. Jezebel notes the Noh drama, Matsukaze, featuring two Ama sisters sharing a lover. Yukio Mishima’s novel The Sound of Waves, features a love triangle with an ama. There’s even a James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, that features an ama. A search for cultural images will also show ama often diving topless and in other depictions. The famous woodblock print, Dreams of a Fisherman’s Wife, shows an ama sexually entwined with an octopus.
There is also a strong association between water and sex. In traditional Japanese woodblocks and erotic prints known as Shunga, rivers, rain, rain clouds, and even umbrellas were devices used to show their viewers sexual tension. In the case of umbrellas, a closed umbrella over a man might represent a phallic shape. Japanese merpeople were often mermaids, and there are several stories of men being lured into the sea by female dragons and other creatures.
Due to modern times giving women more access to education and jobs, the traditions of free-diving ama has been in decline. Legal laws, fishing regulations, and big industry fishing also play a role in the decline of ama fishing. Today there are reportedly somewhere in between 800-2,000 ama still left. Their numbers were never big, but have been especially dwindling since WWII. They exist in only a few areas now such as Mie, Iwate, Ishikawa and there are nine prefectures that have agreed to help promote Ama diving (Iwate, Miyagi, Ishikawa, Fukui, Shizuoka, Mie, Tottori, Yamaguchi and Tokushima). Traditional ma fishing in Shima and Toba were given the designation of an Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Mie Perfecture in 2014. And since 2007, there has been a movement to register ama fishing on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Ama divers have also modernized their tools since the 1950s. They mostly now wear wetsuits and some have masks and fins. In some areas, they might still wear a white outfit. But they still dive without the assistance of tanks and instead rely on their own lung capacity.
Although most Ama divers are now in their 40s, the ones who still dive love their jobs. And although they understand why their numbers are growing smaller, they hope to spread awareness of their careers and to gain recognition.
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This blog post was originally published on my professional website.