Experiences in Nature

The Women of the Sea, Japan’s Traditional Ama-San Divers

Ama, it means “Woman of the Sea”, and even in technical, industrial, modern-day Japan, the few remaining traditional Ama, women divers, adhere to long held historical beliefs and practices said to stretch back over 2,000 years, and as such, they are venerated with near legendary status.

The ancient techniques and the numbers of traditional Ama women divers are slowly disappearing as times change. Demand for their activities and numbers of young women willing to undergo the training and maintain the traditions continues to diminish. However, the disciplines are continued in Mie Prefecture where the largest number of traditional Ama left in Japan, around 100 women, remain active in Osatsu-cho.

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As recently as the 1960’s, the women Ama divers wore only a white loincloth. As the art became more popular with tourists, and social norms changed, so too did the women diver’s outfits, into full body white cloth swimwear, and more recently yet again, into a modern-day wet suit. The only traditional article of clothing still being used is the headscarf, adorned with special symbols, believed to bring fortune to the women divers, while warding off bad luck.

Without snorkels or diving equipment the women free-dive to depths of around 4 meters in search of seasonal delicacies including shellfish such as abalone, turban shells, and sea urchins, various seaweeds including wakame and hijiki, sea cucumber and even lobster.

Most of the women commenced their training from as early as 12 years of age, and remain underwater for around 50 seconds. Among the many unique skills of the Ama-san is the special breathing technique known as Isobue, a sharp whistle sound they make to steady their breathing before and after diving that also serves to let the other Ama-san know where they are, and that they are safe. Ama divers often work as a small group, traveling daily to open waters by boat and diving for a short, set time, usually around 90 minutes or so, during which they collect as much seafood as they can.

Today, the Ama traditions continue, although the numbers are few. Many Ama-san now ply their trade for the tourist industry, taking visitors on the boats to watch the women diving and bringing their catch to the surface. Another popular attraction is being allowing into the special seaside Amagoya huts, where the Ama-san cook their freshly caught daily takings on roaring fires, and entertain the visitors with stories about the life, history and culture of the Ama, women of the sea.


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