It may not be long before we cease to see Japan’s traditional female free divers, known as Ama, in the flesh.
In Toba city, Ama forage for seafood like abalone, sea urchin and lobster, but their numbers are threatened by an aging population and climate change.
Located on the Northeast Coast of the Shima Peninsula, the Toba region boasts the largest number of Amas in Japan at around 600 divers, with the oldest reaching 82-years-old.
According to the Director of the Toba Sea-Folk Museum, Yoshikata Ishihara, the term Ama, which translates to “sea woman”, first appeared in the 18th century through evidence found in folklore and paintings.
Prior to the adoption of wet suits in the 1960s, these nimble mermaids wore only a white loincloth and goggles during their dives. They dive without the aid of oxygen tanks.
Today, an Ama’s kit can include a wetsuit, goggles, flippers, gloves, a chisel, a floatation device, a barrel or net to hold the catch and a white bonnet, which is said to make them more visible to fisherman and to scare off sharks.
Their white bonnets are also marked with customary talismans to ward off evil spirits from the sea: the Seiman a star symbol and the Doman a latticed pattern are placed side-by-side on various Ama tools for protection.
An Ama’s dive can range from three to 20 meters, and each dive can last up to 50 seconds. The number of dive days per year can range from six to 70, factoring in when the sea is rough and abiding by regulations.
50 years of diving
When Shigeyo Nakayama was 10-years-old she carried a wooden bucket down to the water with her siblings and pretended to be an Ama during playtime.
Currently, the 69-year-old is one of 110 active Ama divers from the Osatsu Area in Toba City.
In addition to diving, she supplements her income with a part-time job at a local hotel and has a plot of land that she farms. For more than 80 percent of Amas, a different source of income and a partner with a permanent job rounds out a households finances.
An Amas catch is usually hauled directly to the nearby market and sold. Although Ama means “woman” diver, men can do the job too.
Nakayama also works at an Ama Goya an Ama hut – set up by the Osatsu Cultural Council, offering meal service to visitors with seafood they catch. Located by a fishing port, visitors are able to make lunch reservations and experience the cuisine inside the hut.
The menu touts charcoal grilled local seafood that is in season and prepared by a group of Amas in front of the patrons.
Fewer keen to be Ama
Nakayamas daughter has chosen not to be an Ama, despite the occupation traditionally being passed down through the maternal lineage.
As young people seek work in big cities, they leave behind an aging population, who are trying to preserve the Ama culture.
There were more than 6000 Ama divers in the Toba region.
“At the peak, there were more than 6000 Ama divers in the Toba region, which has largely decreased now,” said Ishihara, who has been studying Amas for more than 40 years.
According to the Toba Sea-Folk Museum, sea desertification and the drop in natural resources is threatening the Ama practice.
To protect against overfishing, restrictions have been set for specific areas. The Mie Prefecture Fishery Adjustment Regulations states that no abalone may be harvested from Sep. 15 through Dec. 31, since spawning begins in October.
In addition, abalone smaller than 10.6 cm in shell size is also prohibited from being caught. Abalone, an Amas most profitable catch, takes 4 years to reach its legal size and can sell for up to $40 a pound.
Other restrictions set to protect against over culling of Toba Citys natural resources include rules on which days an Ama can dive, the number of outings per day, the length of each dive and so on.
Sisterhood for life
Despite these policies being set by the city, they are self-governed. Ishihara said Amas are a tight knit community guided by altruism.
The hut where Amas rest, warm up and socialize after dives, typically holds around five people and is heated by a wood fuelled fire.
When a hut needs repair, Amas of the group will pitch in for renovations. The Ama sisterhood is difficult to infiltrate and despite a dearth of young Amas, it is challenging for them to accept outsiders.
When asked why she continues to be an Ama after diving for 50 years, Nakayama said she loves the fact that the hard work she puts in is rewarded in the form of cash.
In comparison to being a housewife, where the work is not valued or rewarded, being an Ama, youre rewarded instantly, said Nakayama.
Even if Im not successful one day, I try again the next, she added.
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