Ama Divers in Ijika

Basic Information Of 'Ama'

 

The word "Ama"

Ama is written as "海女" in Japanese. It means 'Woman of the sea".

 

What is Ama?

Ama is a traditional job and a lifestyle of women who live near the ocean. Ama make their livelihood by catching a variety of seafood. Ama do not use oxygen tanks. They just hold their breath and dive.

 

Why only women?

There are some guesses, but nobody really knows the exact reason. I personally feel it was the most natural choice for women who live this region.

 

In old days, people who live near the ocean had only a few options for earning money. It's easy to imagine that most of the people became fishermen because the ocean is right in front of their eyes.

Photo by Tatsuya Sato
Photo by Tatsuya Sato

 

In Japan, it's common that husband goes out to earn money and wife stays home to do housework and take care of their children. There was no laundry machine, no gas stove, no vacuum cleaner at that time. So, wives were so busy everyday. But after their children have grown up, they suddenly got some spare time. If she goes out and has some fun with her friends, maybe her mother-in-law would say something. But if she goes to the ocean with her friends and gets some seafood, it becomes one more side dish for tonight, or she can sell it and gets some money!

 

Ama divers only dive a couple of hours a day, so it shouldn't be too long. She till can get back home earlier than her husband and can manage the household...

Income of Ama divers is far less than fishermen's. So, I think it makes sense that husband (man) uses a big boat and fishing nets to get lots of fish and earn a lot, and wife (woman) only work for a short period of time and get some extra income for the family.

 

Now, Japanese societal system got a lot changed, so the number of male Ama divers are slightly increasing. It doesn't mean that only women can become Ama divers now.


Inside 'Ama Hut'

December 29, 2017

"Ama hut", in Japanese 海女小屋 [ama-goya], which is a small hut where Ama divers gather to warm their bodies before and after their diving.

 

The style of huts vary each place, but most commonly there is an open fire place in the center, and people sit around it and take a rest.

People chat and eat snacks together. Sometimes we grill mochi (rice cake) and himono (dried fish) over the fire and share it. Sharing food makes people closer. Members of Ama hut become like a family.

 

Ordinary Ama huts are quite old, most of the huts were built by themselves decades ago. Inside, the walls are covered with charcoal and smells smorky.


After diving for a couple of hours in the cold water, I can't speak well because my lips tremble.

 

So, we place large cans, which contain water inside, around the fire before we go diving. When we come back to the hut, the water is perfectly  warmed and we can use the hot water to put it over our heads while taking off wetsuit.

 

It's so nice chatting and taking a rest around fire in winter. But in summer, the heat and smoke just kill us. We have to make fire even in summer. Ama divers believe that fire protect our souls from demon in the sea.


How Long Can Ama Dive?

January 21, 2018

Sometimes, people ask me how long I can hold my breath.

 

I think this question indicates people believe Ama have incredible skills of holding their breath as like free-divers.

I have been also thinking like that before I came here.

 

What makes us different from free-divers is, free-divers dive for diving deeper or longer, but Ama divers dive for catching seashells as many as possible.

 

Generally speaking, Ama divers hold their breath approximately for 50 seconds. So, it is not important to hold our breath so long to dive deeper and longer.

 

Of course if you can hold your breath longer, that means you have more time seeking for abalones in the water. But my master taught me that "If you dive longer and 

Photo by Tatsuya Sato
Photo by Tatsuya Sato

deeper, you need more time to bring your breathing back to normal. If you take more time on the water surface, that's a waste of your time. 'How many dives you can make' is more important than 'how long you can stay underwater' ".

 

Actually, breathing capacity of Ama divers are almost the same as ordinary people.

It doesn't mean that their lungs are special. Just they are very skilled to seek for shells and know their ocean very well.


'Pearl' and 'ama'

October 05, 2019

Ama divers are sometimes introduced as 'Pearl Divers'.

The image of young women diving into the ocean and collecting pearls seems very beautiful and mysterious.

 

The relationship of pearl and Ama divers started in the late 19th century.

A man named Kokichi Mikimoto started culturing pearls in the ocean. To make pearls, it is necessary to prepare lots of pearl oysters, and Ama divers were in charge of collecting natural pearl oysters for the cultivation, and place them back to the ocean after putting nucleus into the shell.

 

But since the technology improved, Ama divers are no longer necessary to help pearl cultivation. There are no Ama divers in Japan who dive for pearls now.


Ama divers are diving to catch edible seafood such as abalone, sea cucumber, and sea urchin.

 

I have asked my Ama master who's over 80 years old that she had ever found a natural pearl in the sea. She said she'd never found any in her 65 years of Ama diving.

But an Ama diver who lives in another place in Toba, she posted on Facebook that she found a tiny piece of natural pearl from an oyster. Even though Ama divers are not seeking for pearls, they appear sometimes if she is lucky.