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
Original source: https://reginablog.wordpress.com/