Ama: The free diving fisherwomen of Japan

Ama Women by Lance Henderstein

I stared into the dark fathoms of Suruga Bay, Japan. Having travelled along the coast for several hours the dark green forests edging the water, tiled roofs and fishing villages, I still felt anxiety caught like a ball in the back of my throat. My pre-teen daughter was thousands of miles away, in a different timezone staying with my parents and while I slept she’d gone to the beach with friends. She was making her first steps towards independence and I was handling it about as well as a 90’s dad handles a phone bill. It had only been the two of us since she was five and this work trip was the furthest we’d ever been from each other. Now, standing by the water amongst the hustle and bustle of tourists and locals I felt guilty that I wasn’t at home with her and terrible that I should be enjoying myself and couldn’t. The lights flickered on around the fish market by the bay making a pretty glow on the water. Business for the family run stalls had remained steady all afternoon and was now at fever pitch. Amongst the hum of noise an old lady wearing a white bandana spoke sharply to her younger counterpart while she furiously stirred a huge pot and I thought of my own mother back at home. I knew she’d chide me to stop worrying and grab the excellent career opportunity that presented itself to me, the opportunities that hadn’t been available to her, a young mother of three girls in the north east of England. It was a reminder that although Japan was made up of a complex tapestry of landscapes and traditions each unique to their own prefecture, the delicate thread of mothers and daughters was entwined throughout cultures everywhere.

The Ama women are deeply woven into Japanese history. Ama, translated roughly to ‘women of the sea,’ perform the practice of free diving, for sixty seconds at a time to depths of twenty metres without equipment. The skill has been taught from mother to daughter for thousands of years although the true date of origin is disputed. Some believe it can be traced back 5,000 years, though others contend this was more likely 3,000 years ago.

Ama Women diving Stefan Lins

Art and literature have painted the ama as mysterious, ethereal mermaids though the truth is far more impressive. The majority of ama are from rural, farming communities and the precarious dives were braved through necessity. Only the strongest could perform the job to its basic requirement and those with high levels of persistence excelled. Because of their higher percentage of body fat, women were chosen to dive instead of men as they had greater endurance for the near freezing temperatures of the seawater. The perseverance required to free dive from dawn until nightfall collecting food for the village or to sell at market didn’t only require athleticism, practical matters like childrearing, farm tasks from their rural dwellings and household chores had to be attended to and were performed between dives in accordance with the tides.

From a small Goya, a shed like building by the shore, ama would leave their clothing, adorning the fundoshi, a white loincloth, for swimming. It was believed the white colour of the loincloth would ward off sharks. Older daughters would accompany their mothers and learn the skills of the ama, swimming and diving and holding their breath in shallow seas. Elderly family members were also on hand to support and help look after smaller children and bring them to the Goya if they required breastfeeding.
Seaweed, shellfish, lobster, octopus, sea urchins and the prized catch of black abalone were brought up from the sea but never over harvested. The Ama believed then, and now, to only harvest what was needed. A prayer at a shrine was spoken before and after each shift, for safety and then to give thanks.

Ama Women Diving by Stefan Lin

The logistics of the dive appear to be similar for many of the ama. An unassisted ama is known as a cachito. A catchito dive is roughly thirty seconds, five seconds to descend, fifteen seconds on the seabed and five seconds to ascend to the surface. A cachito will then spend thirty seconds on the surface breathing. Two or more ama are known as funado and usually work on boats which gives them greater access to deeper areas of the ocean. The diver carries a stone counterweight to help her descend to the bottom for fifteen seconds. Thirty seconds are then spent on the seabed harvesting seafood before the companion will pull the ama to the surface for the fifteen second ascend using a rope tied around her waist. A minute is then spent on the surface breathing. Through age and experience, the ama that continue to dive into their 80’s, could extend their time on the seabed to two minutes. Upon surfacing the divers release an isobue, an ocean whistle, this breathing technique helps the ama expel carbon dioxide from their lungs and breathe in large amounts of fresh oxygen in preparation for the next dive.

After learning of the ama, Kokichi Mikimoto used their skills to pioneer the cultured pearl in the 1890’s. He employed ama divers to collect the adult pearl oysters from the seabed and replace them after the nucleus was implanted in the oyster. The uniform of a white linen diving dress and headscarf took place over the fundoshi though this was dangerously impractical for the work Mikimoto felt it preserved the ama’s decency. Kokichi used the ama to grow his business internationally and founded the Mikimoto pearl island thanks to their hard work. The pearl diving ama can be seen today as a tourist attraction on the island in Toba.

As I lay in bed later that evening, my stomach full of fresh sushi from the market, my phone lit up with a picture message from my mother. My daughters face, twisted into shock as a wave from the freezing north sea hit her from behind on the beach I’d grown up visiting as a child. The caption read ‘Hope you’re having this much fun.’

In the 1950’s over 17,000 ama worked in Japan, the job provided a path to financial independence for women who needed it most, today, numbers have greatly declined due to commercial fishing and a wider range of job opportunities for women, though there are still around 2000 operating in Japan. The fundoshi has been replaced with a more practical wetsuit and goggles and the catch of the day is cooked up into a shoreline barbecue for well paying tourists or sold to wholesalers. A good haul can fetch up to 50,000 Yen (£350) though some ama believe climate change has affected shellfish breeding making the collection difficult in winter. The work remains treacherous and highly skilled. Many of the daughters of the working ama are now employed in the cities, carving their way in a very different world to the one their mothers grew up in, a world whose doors were once closed and are now open, thanks to their ama ancestors, the first independent women of Japan.

Huge thanks to the book Daily life of women: From ancient times to present, who provided a great insight into the life of the ama women and Lance Henderstein who’s photographs and writing in VICE gave a unique look into the lives of the ama which provided inspiration for this article.

Main photo:  Lance Henderstein

Photos (01 & 02) by Stefan Lin