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Oyster harvesters 2. Ama divers

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

Do you remember how I told you how French oyster gatherers of the 19th century were

objects of sexual fantasies similar to modern-day stewardesses? And how men travelled to

Arcachon simply to ogle at the bare calves and ankles of the workers at oyster farms? They

had clearly not even seen ama—Japanese clam and seaweed divers.

Ama (海女) means “sea women”. Ever since times immemorial, Japanese women

descended into the sea depths to gather edible molluscs. This profession is about two

thousand years old. An ama named Oben is included in the pantheon of Shinto gods.

According to the legend, the diver Oben from Kuzaki village presented a travelling princess

with an abalone. The princess loved the mollusc so much that she gave the Kuzaki villagers

the right to supply these delicacies to the Ise Grand Shrine.

In Japan, mollusc season is in autumn and winter. Divers need to gather the oysters in the

cold water. Originally, the men dived, too. However, in time, their role was relegated to

merely controlling the boat. Only women dived to the depths of 15–20 metres. The reason

was in the physiological characteristics of a woman’s body.  Thanks to the distribution of

subcutaneous fat, women can endure low temperatures for longer, and are better at diving

into the cold seas. But this isn’t even the main thing!

The truly impressive part is the divers’ unique “work outfit”. The only piece of clothing on an

ama’s body is fundoshi, a type of loincloth similar to one worn by a sumo wrestler. On her

head, the diver wears a tenugui headscarf. Its aim was not only to hold back the woman’s

hair but also to protect her from the evil spirits. In order to do that, the tenugui was adorned

with special charms.

An ama would dive to the depths armed with a crooked sword called kaigan, which she

would use to separate the oysters from underwater stones and defend herself from


The diver’s almost total lack of clothing was explained by the need for maximum freedom of

mobility underwater. Ama made up to 60 dives per day, working for 4–5 hours, only coming

to the surface for a few seconds before submerging again. The divers possessed a unique

secret technique that enabled them to hold their breath for three minutes, which was passed

on from mother to daughter.

Interestingly, in the villages where ama lived, the traditional male and female roles were

flipped. The women were the heads of the family, and the main breadwinners.  Young ama

were desirable brides and could often choose their own husbands.

Perhaps this has given rise to the belief that the divers were living their life to the fullest

when off work. Ama definitely feature in many old erotic ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The most

famous of these is Girl Diver and Octopi by Katsushika Hokusai (1814).  It’s also known as

The Dream of the Fishermans Wife. (By the way, this print made such a deep impression on

Pablo Picasso that he painted his own version of it in 1903).

But back to oyster harvesting. The fishing process was organised thus: the ama was

attached to the boat by a long rope, and dove head-first into the sea, usually holding a ten-

kilogram weight. Once at the bottom, the woman released the weight, which was

immediately pulled up by the man in the boat. After swiftly gathering the clams and algae,

the woman pulled on the rope, thereby signalling to her safety rope holder, who literally

hauled the diver to the surface.

The physical fitness of the divers is something to be envied. It was believed that ama

reached their peak form aged around 40–50, and that mature divers could spend even

longer time under water than the younger ones. (I tried to imagine myself and my friends “at

peak form”... Girls, there are so many possibilities opening up!)

Ama mainly harvested agarophyte Gelidium algae, oysters and other edible molluscs.

Sometimes divers managed to find oysters with pearls in them. Each diver had her own

secret locations where she would look for the precious clams. There were times when even

mothers and daughters hid the locations of those places from each other.

The divers strictly adhered to traditions for almost two thousand years. It was only in early

1900s when ama gear received an update with the addition of the goggles that protected the

diver’s eyes from the damaging sea salt.

However, ama themselves made a contribution to the scientific and technological progress.

When, in early 20th Century, the oyster seller Mikimoto Kokichi began to develop a

technology of growing cultured pearls, the ama gathered pearl oysters for him, and later

placed them back onto the sea floor already with the grain of sand inside the mollusc’s body.

Japanese photographer Yoshiyuki Iwase (1904–2001) created an amazing series of

photographs in the middle of the 20th century, telling of the life of the divers. Don’t

know if it is true, but apparently one of these mermaids enthralled him so much that

he moved to the little seaside village and for years photographed the girls at work.

The Americans and Europeans that found themselves in Japan after World War II

were shocked and delighted by the exotic divers.

Fosco Maraini (1912–2004), Italian ethnographer, photographer, orientalist and

writer dedicated a whole illustrated book to the ama. The book was titled The Island

of the Fisherwomen, while the Italian referred to the divers themselves as bare-

chested goddesses and Valkyries of the seas.

Post-war development of tourism in Japan also drew unprecedented interest to the

work of the divers. Americans were so impressed that they made an ama diver Kissy

Suzuki the Bond girl in the fifth film of the Agent 007 saga, You Only Live Twice.

In the 50s and 60s, there were about 17,000 oyster harvesters in Japan. A skilled

diver could earn up to 20,000 dollars per the six-month-long season. However,

following Western tradition, the numbers of the divers began to decrease in mid-50s.

It’s sad, but the developments in technology and Japanese government-instilled

quotas for mollusc harvesting have caused the ancient profession to all but vanish.

By modern day, the erstwhile army of gorgeous divers has been reduced to just a

few hundred veterans. The average age of a modern-day ama is 67 years, the oldest

being well over 80. They wear only fine white cotton garb for work.

And to be honest, these modern-day ama amaze and delight me even more than the

captivating mermaids featured in the photographs of Yoshiyuki Iwase and Fosco


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