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They’re not mermaids, but Japanese Ama divers do spend their lives in the water. These brave, free-diving women plunge into the icy waters off the coast of Japan in search of oysters, pearls, abalone, sea cucumbers, and seaweed. This is how the Ama—which translates to “women of the sea”—have made their living for thousands of years.
The first record of the Ama exists in the Man’yoshu, an 8th-century anthology of Japanese poems. And some say the practice predates the Man’yoshu by thousands of years. Traditionally, the Ama wore only a diving mask, loincloth—fundoshi—and bandana—tenugui, which added to their mermaid-like appearance. In the decades following World War II, some of the Ama began to wear white cloth outfits, while others wore rubber wetsuits—these two outfits are still common today.
In the past, the Ama would simply tie a rope around their waists to stay connected to their boats, then dive in. Despite the modern world’s reliance on technology, the Ama still use little equipment, relying instead on their free-diving roots. There are no air tanks, no snorkels. Kachido-style divers work in shallower depths, usually 4-8 meters, using their feet to propel their descent. Funado-style Ama work farther out to sea, diving to depths of 10-15 meters, their descent aided by heavy weights tied around their waists.
The divers must work quickly below the surface. They typically spend about two minutes underwater. With no air support, they rely on their own lung capacity to sustain them. When the Ama resurface, they exhale with a whistling noise called isobue. The “sea whistle” helps to regulate breathing between dives. They drop their catch into a floating net or basket before making another dive. This process is repeated for 2 to 4 hours per day, depending on the diver.
While there were approximately 10,000 Ama divers during the post-WWII years, only about 2,000 Ama still practice, many of whom are over 60 years old. Ama divers traditionally followed in their mother’s footsteps, but fewer and fewer young women are continuing the craft today. Modern commercial fishing techniques and government regulations have combined to make Ama diving a less lucrative career path, and younger generations are turning towards modern jobs in bigger cities. But there is little competition between the remaining Ama—it’s a sisterhood guided by respect.
Visitors to Japan can meet and observe Ama divers firsthand. Many of the Ama live and work in the Ise-Shima region in the Mie prefecture of southern Japan. These incredible women are keeping a centuries-old tradition alive, and the opportunity to hear their stories is an experience you’ll always remember.
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