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