Ama, the Women of the Sea

On Ago bay, maidens trimmed in hems of red,  

ride their boats on the height of the tide.

Ama of Ise, morning and evening,

Dive into X the for abalone, unrequited love

(Mayoushuu, 759 AD)

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The folk tales of the ama divers are said to whisper back to at least 3000 years ago, but the 8th century Mayoushuu poetry book serves as one of their first written testimonies. From then on the “sea women” have been a muse, illustrated in endless drawings and later captured in the lens of international photographers such as Fosco Maraini and Horace Bristol. One of the frames made by the former portrays a beautiful young woman wearing nothing but tiny white shorts, a diving mask rests on her forehead and she is holding two wooden buckets, one under each arm. Indeed, until the 1920s, if strolling along the Shima peninsula in Japan this was a common image to see. Yet today very little remains of their tremendous heritage – less than 1000 of the 6190 ladies who were here just sixty years ago.

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We met one of the larger ama communities still remaining in Kuzaki – a small village, northeast of the Mie prefecture. The eldest of them, aged 81, had just returned from her dive, and came to greet us at the entrance of the shed while the others were inside, on their knees, leaning in front of a fire as they cooked the day’s bounty for lunch. They are 54 of the most vigorous women you have ever seen. The youngest by the way is 48 years of age. When looking from the naked images of the past to them today remains the question if it’s a heritage initiated of female submission or to the contrary, of female liberation. Either way in their present form they seem nothing other than strong and capable. And perhaps one has not much choice but to be since the future, for a long time now, seems very unknown. For the past several decades they have had no one to pass the tradition to – most of the girls grow up and in the search of a reliable profession, they move to the cities and take on academic studies. Those who don’t leave still find themselves wondering off to a more modern way of life. When asked if they would have wanted their daughters to stay and continue their ways, they shake their head in dismissal because they know that there is only very little that such a future can offer. 

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In an ideal world their methods would be one of the only permitted forms of fishing. No one can argue – it is a perfect model of sustainability. Other than the fact that they are no longer in the buff, the women still set to sea with the least possible, just as they did a hundred years ago. Using a single lens mask they dive between 5 – 8 meters deep. They have a lead weight to pull them down at speed, a hooked chisel and a net bag for the shellfish harvest. Once underwater the only way to detect them is by a floating bucket attached to their waist, which remains on the surface to gather the found goods. The women who don’t practice the “kachido” single dive method use the “fundao”, performed as a couple. In this case the ama’s husband remains on a boat, which substitutes for the bucket, and the depth of the dive is doubled. Both techniques are permitted only in two sessions a day of 60 minutes each, and varying by the different areas, they can do so only on specific days of the week to a maximum of 120 days a year. The time underwater is called “the 50 minute battle” during which they perform a persistent search for their catch; sea urchin, octopus, spiny lobster, turban snail, varied seaweeds, or the abalone which are the most prized of them all. Their divinity to the western palate is negotiable yet in Japan they are a seasonal symbol of richness and luxury. And even though abalone are so highly desired, their production is well maintained and restricted. In addition to the harvest being forbidden altogether between the September 15 and December 31, almost every ama can tell 10.6 cm with a glimpse of an eye – when a shell is less than that it is legally too small it to be taken.

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According to Poyoki Iwao, an algae marine biologist in the area, the Shima peninsula is in dire need of better regulation. Not many big companies easily obtain licences in this area of Japan since it is still very much run by family fisheries but climatic changes and overproduction bring upon it different challenges. Considered that the demand for seaweed in Japan is quite high it is constantly over harvested and the changing currents and higher sea temperatures make its life cycle longer. On the one hand there is a constant oversupply resulting in falling prices, on the other it hasn’t the time to renew itself. He claims there is an ongoing decrease of algae and phytoplankton which they are now trying to resolve by scientific and technological means, but this is being done some 100 years too late. “We need regulation both on the harvest and on prices” he says. “But it’s very hard to try and create regulations here. First because most of the fisherman are old and changing ways of habit is never easy. Secondly because they work in associations and the many voices needed to be heard result in a lot of talk and very little action”. 

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In light of Iwao’s words, the ama seem to be somewhat of a treasure in the midst of it all. 

“I believe their community is a very good thing for the district but their diving isn’t recognized as a formal profession and so you can’t easily bring newcomers into the community. It is still entirely run by their inner rules and traditions,” he explains. In addition to that, the low prices push most of the women to seek a second job for those other days in the year where the diving is illegal, maybe this is one of the reasons that also within the group there is no real attempt to institutionalize their practice. 

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Traditionally, the ama had a cultural and historical value. Today however, in a global perspective, they offer an environmental and social merit as well. In the discussion of preserving their community it’s hard not to wonder why a bigger effort isn’t being made. Recently the Japanese government has been trying to get them registered as an UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. However, this is legally inapplicable until they are recognized as such an entity by the government in their own country, something they have only began looking for recently .If it were to happen, and not only on the cultural side of things but if the ama were to be financially and socially supported, Japan could not only gain back an important part of its oceanic cultural history, but a sustainable and feminist community of heritage. 

When speaking of tradition and innovation – surely both would be of better value if the latter would help the former find a new framework in the 21st century, rather than just replacing the old with the new. 

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