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