Freediving with the Ama in Japan (by Michelle)

Most freedivers know of the legendary ama divers of Japan. Known as “海女” in Japanese, which directly translates to “sea woman“, these ladies depend on the sea for their livelihoods. 

The diving tradition of the ama dates back about two thousand years. Using their breath holding skills, they collected various types of shellfish and seaweed from the sea floor, wearing nothing but a loin cloth on their bodies and a scarf over their hair in the freezing cold waters. Historically, when Japanese pearl farmer Koichi Mikimoto first developed a method for cultivating pearls, he employed the ama to care for the precious pearl oysters.

Historically, women were considered more suitable for the work of an ama because of the higher fat content in their bodies, which helped them tolerate the cold better than men. Girls would begin their training at the age of 12 with an older family member and would then continue to work as an ama well into their 70s or 80s. However, since the introduction of wetsuits, more men now do the same work as the ama.

I’ve always been interested in cultures that have a close relationship with the sea, so since I was heading to Japan to swim with dolphins, I decided to make a trip down to Mie province, where the ama tradition originated, to meet some of these fabled ladies. The only way we found to do this (unless you personally knew an ama) was to join a tour organised by a local company, so we went ahead and booked ourselves on one.

On the morning of our tour, my travel companion and I were picked up at the train station in Kashikojima by our guide, Akiko. As we drove to the harbour where we were going to meet the ama, Akiko fed us with facts on the history of the ama and the region. It turned out that Akiko’s aunt was an ama diver too, so she knew from her stories what an ama divers lifestyle was like. There are currently about 200 ama in Kashikojima, and about 700 in the neighbouring area of Toba. The youngest ama in the area is 15 years old, and the oldest, 82!

At the harbour, we were led to a long, single-storey building with a metal roof. The building was divided into several rooms, and Akiko told us that each room was shared by several ama, who used it to change, cook and rest in between dives. We went through one room, where we placed our belongings, to the back of the building. There, we met several ama, who all seemed to be in their 40s or 50s, and exchanged pleasantries, assisted by Akiko’s translations. Surrounding us were bags of dried white seaweed. In one of the rooms, there was a pot of boiling liquid over an open fire (with no chimney!). Curious, we asked what they were cooking. The ama explained that they were boiling the dried seaweed (which is originally red in colour) until it dissolved. They would then pour the liquid into trays and wait for it to set, to make jelly. The jelly could be sliced and eaten later. I was reminded of agar, which is made from seaweed, that we use to make agar-agar, a multicoloured jelly with different flavours. This could be its original form!

After marvelling at the jelly (though we didn’t get to try any), we were introduced to Mayumi, the ama we were going to dive with. She was 70 years old, and looked sprightly and fit. We changed into our wetsuits, then together with the other people on the tour (2 tourists from France and the UK, and a young Japanese lady (who, interestingly, had been on the tour before, and was back because she wanted to learn to be an ama), hopped into the van that was going to bring us to a jetty nearby where we would head out from.

Sometimes, an ama and her husband would work together as a team. The husband would drive and handle the boat, while the ama did the diving. But not in Mayumi’s case, though she worked with the same boat driver regularly. At the jetty, we clambered into the boat and headed out to a spot nearby which was supposedly good for harvesting shellfish. During the 20 minute drive, Mayumi told us why she became an ama. In her previous job, she had worked in a provincial office for the government. When she had children, she decided to become an ama so she would have flexibility and time to look after them. She learnt the tricks of the trade on her own, by watching other ama.

In the water, Mayumi was a deft swimmer. Her duck dives were smooth, and once underwater she moved quickly from rock to rock, using a hook-like tool to overturn the smaller ones. Her eyes were sharp and she spied the shellfish she was looking for easily. I on the other hand, took a while to differentiate the shellfish from the surface of the rocks they were on (they were well camouflaged!). Those shellfish in particular had a muscular foot, much like a snail’s, and clung on to the rocks like there was no tomorrow. Mayumi used a different tool that had a flat end as a lever to prise the sticky shellfish off. She offered me the tool, and I had a go. It was not as easy as it looked! After watching Mayumi and having a few more tries, it got easier. I got better at recognising the shellfish we were looking for, and figured out the easiest way to get them off. I even found a scallop, and 2 sea urchins! We followed the same steps each time: duck diving, looking on or under rocks, collecting what we found, putting the rocks back in place, swimming to the surface and placing our spoils in a net attached to a buoy, catching our breath, then heading back down. Mayumi had no issues keeping up with us younger folks. I am definitely going to try to be that fit when I am 70!

An hour later, we were back on the boat. Usually, the ama sell their catch to the seafood market after a dive, but since the tours are held on Saturdays when the market is closed, the catch is placed back in the water. Back at the harbour, we had a hot shower, then said goodbye to Mayumi. We were starving after a cold dive and boat ride, so good thing it was time for lunch!

We were driven to another location for lunch, with row of wooden huts resembling the old ama huts beside a larger building. We drove into the carpark and were introduced to Kimiyo, another ama, who was in her 60s. She was dressed in the traditional white clothing that the ama wore when diving. The white colour was said to repel sharks. We entered one of the huts and saw a small barbeque with already hot charcoal in it. Squid, turban shell (a kind of mollusc that we had also picked that morning), scallop and fish were on a dish next to it. In addition to that, there was rice and assorted vegetable dishes. What a feast!

As we ate, we asked about Kimiyo’s story. She came from a family of ama, with her grandmother and mother in the trade before her. At the age of 15, after finishing high school, she became an ama diver as well. Not long after, she flew to the US and spent 2 years there, performing as an ama in the San Diego Marine Park. Smiling, she told us that even though the work can be tiring, she enjoys being in the water and dives as much as she can. She can even catch fish using her bare hands!

We also learnt about the restrictions in place to ensure that the harvesting remains sustainable. Ama are only allowed to dive 1.5 hours in a day, and can’t dive on Tuesdays and Saturdays. These rules had been made about 30 years ago by the local Fisheries Department, when shellfish numbers had started going down. Although such regulations may prevent overharvesting, no rules made by the Fisheries Department can alleviate the effects of climate change. Kimiyo recounted that there have been more storms and bad weather in recent years, reducing the number of days that the ama can go out and dive. Many ama have side jobs (such as bringing people on the tour) to supplement their income.

For all their friendliness to us tourists, the ama are a conservative community with many rules. In order to become an ama, you would have to belong to an ama association, and in some areas obtain a permit. Ama were only allowed to dive in the area they live in, and must dive on at least 90 days of the year.

After lunch, we entered the larger building which was a museum of sorts, containing displays of artefacts like the tools and equipment used by the ama, and information on the tradition. One fact that stood out to me was the beginning of wetsuit use, only about 50 years ago. I have no idea how the ama survived diving in the cold waters before that started!

We came away from the tour with more knowledge of and respect for these tough (and mostly older) women. I do hope that with modernisation and changes to the environment, the ama are able to continue with their way of life, and never lose their connection with the ocean.