Aatish Nath

Meet the ama keeping an ancient profession alive.

In the seaside city of Toba, on Japan’s Shima peninsula, two women prepare to free dive to depths of 20 meters in search of abalone, octopus, sea cucumbers, lobster, and seaweed. Before every excursion, they zip up black rubber wetsuits with white scarves covering their heads. They warm themselves in front of a kamado, or “fire,” before stepping into the waves.

The women disappear under the water, leaving only a red-and-white float ring to mark the spot at which they’ve descended to seek out the day’s catch. They bob up to the surface in regular intervals, sometimes with octopus or sea cucumber that they store in a sukari, or “net,” attached to the float ring. They’re not tethered, and they don’t use oxygen cylinders to help them breathe. They can only stay underwater for about 50 seconds at a time before coming up for air. The ritual repeats itself for an hour and half.

The women are ama, divers who haul the sea creatures to shore and sell them to restaurants and hotels. They’re carrying on an ancient nautical profession: Their tools, called awabi-okoshi, date back 3,000 years. In recent years, new government initiatives to welcome younger women into the ama’s way of life are trying to keep this archaic practice alive.

An ama wades in to the water. (Aatish Nath)

New recruits, old traditions

Both Aiko Ohno, 36, and Momoko Ueda, 29, decided to take up face masks and wetsuits instead of computers and spreadsheets. On the whole, though, most of the 760 ama who reside on the Shima peninsula are older, with an average age of 65. The government is looking to bring younger women into the profession via subsidies and boarding. Their tools—chisel, diving goggles, and float ring—are provided by the prefecture. This is the first time the local government, with the support of the resident ama community, has tried to bring in outsiders into this hereditary way of life, to preserve a lifestyle that is in danger of dying out.

Many ama women on Ise-Shima grew up in the region and learned the trade from their mothers and grandmothers. At the profession’s peak in the post-WWII years, there were over 6,000 ama living in Ise-Shima alone, with more in other parts of  Japan and some coastal regions of Korea. In Japan, it is believed that women make better divers since they are said to be able to hold their breath longer than men, and they have an extra layer of fat to insulate them against the cold.

Now, a declining catch—coupled with Japan’s economic boom in the ‘70s and ‘80s—has resulted in the ama’s numbers dwindling. In recent years, changes in sea temperature attributed to climate change have also made it harder to find abalone and seaweed that were once abundant in the waters around Ise-Shima.

In recent years, government incentives have attracted younger women to the profession. (Aatish Nath)

Ama divers meld ancient beliefs with modern innovations. The divers adorn their headscarves with a five-pointed star (known as a seiman) and a lattice (doman), thought to prevent misfortune and to scare off sharks. The women also use traditional yomogi (mugwort) leaves to clean and defrost their masks. But newer tweaks have helped them maximize their catch. Since the 1960s, ama divers have adopted the black rubber wetsuits, resulting in a doubling of their abalone catch, as it allows them to stay insulated against the cold seawaters. In the market, a pound of abalone can fetch up to $40.

A community of women

Like many other ama, Nakamura considered herself part of a sisterhood, with tight-knit bonds that have been forged over the years. The ama work collectively and support each other, coming together to share resources, such as the huts in which ama women gather around a fire pit before a dive.

Michiko Nakamura, 64, another ama, says that contributing to the household income gave her a say at home, something that was rare in the post-WWII patriarchal culture of Japan. Until the 1960s or 1970s, there were few jobs for women outside of these traditional practices, says Yoshikata Ishihara, the director of the Toba Sea Folk Museum.

Lunch at an ama-goya. (Aatish Nath)

A sustainable profession

I interviewed the ama at an ama-goya, a government-built wooden hut where tourists can eat seafood that the women grill over charcoal flames. Lunchtime meals consist of seasonal seafood served with rice and pickled vegetables. My meal brought out the grilled shellfish’s briny flavours and Spanish mackerel’s natural oiliness.

In addition to the trial apprenticeship program that has welcomed Ohno and Ueda, the local government has put in place measures to ensure the long-term sustainability of the profession and the ecosystem it depends on. The government has banned dives between September 15 and December 31, as this is the time that the abalone spawns. Laws also govern the size at which mollusks can be caught. (They must be at least 10.6 cm.) The ama I interviewed claimed to know, with just a single look, if an abalone was big enough to catch, their eyes trained by years of experience.

The Japanese and Korean governments are also working towards getting the ama recognized as part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage listing. The hope is that the designation will increase their visibility internationally, and encourage more women to take up the profession and save it from disappearing beneath the waves.

The new recruits are taking up the mantle. When asked why she chose to become an ama, Ueda looks wistfully at the blue waters behind her. “I like the sea,” she says.

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