Inside the Fascinating World of Japan’s Ama Divers

Huddled around a roaring fire, elderly Japanese women share cooked seafood caught fresh that day. Their wooden hut is filled with laughter as they chat about their lives and love of diving. With an average age of 65, you’d think these women were long retired, but they’re far from it. They’ve just spent two hours in coastal waters free diving to catch shellfish and abalone, and now they’re taking a break to warm up before they head out to sea again for another few hours. These remarkable ladies are the ama divers of Japan.

Meaning “sea women,” ama can be either male or female, although the vast majority of ama in Japan are women. They are adept free divers who’ve been making their living from the oceans since their teens by collecting seaweed, shellfish, sea urchins, pearls, and prized abalone to sell at market. They work the seas for 10 months of the year, diving four hours a day over two sessions in all weather conditions.

In 1956, ama diving was once a strong community of around 17,611 Japanese divers, but now only 2,174 remain, according to a 2010 survey conducted by the Toba Sea-Folk Museum. The largest community of around 800 live in Toba and Shima in the Mie prefecture.

Traditionally, women dived in nothing but a fundoshi (loincloth) and a tenugui (bandana), armed with only a floating ring attached to a net and a shucking tool called awabi-okoshi (abalone scraper). Implements like these made of deer horn were found at a Shirahama archaeological site and dated the practice back 2,000 years,  though it possibly has been practiced 5,000 years.

They generally dive 16 to 39 feet (5–12 meters) unassisted. And some ama can dive to depths of up to 82 feet (25 meters) without a breathing apparatus, an impressive feat considering most scuba divers are trained to go down to 98 feet (30 meters). When divers resurface, they use a breathing technique unique to the ama known as an isobue—a piercing whistle that helps regulate their breathing between dives. It’s also a way of signalling to others in their diving group that they’re safe.

Once a practice that ran down through generations, diving was very much a family affair with each woman trained by her mother or grandmother. Children would learn to swim around 6 or 7 years old and would usually be ready to start ama training at 12 years old. Some ama dive until they’re well into their 80s. The oldest diver known, mentioned in a 2009 documentary was still diving at 92-years-old.

This community of hardy women not only works together but socializes together, too. On breaks, they retire to a shoreline hut to warm up around a traditional irori fireplace. They’ll often cook some of their catch here before heading to the fish market together to sell their catch of the day.

Ama divers play a central role in the local community, and the practice is revered. Every year, May 7, the Ishigami-san Haru Matsuri Festival honors the ama of Toba in the Mie prefecture. The goddess of the local Shinmei-Jinja Shrine is said to grant a wish to all female visitors who offer prayer. The community prays for a bountiful fishing season, and the men cook for the women to show their appreciation for the ama who support their families during the year.

Today, not much has changed. Although wetsuits came along in the ’50s, replacing the simple loincloths, many of the tools and traditions remain the same.

However, the ama way of life is increasingly under threat as so few women are prepared to take over the tradition from their elders; residents of the fishing villages often seek higher pay in bigger cities instead.

The ama acknowledge they need to welcome new divers from outside their families and open their huts to tourists to share their way of life if the tradition is to carry on. Today, tourists can dive with the ama and then sit down with them to hear stories of their lives while they cook their catch for guests to eat, book a private visit to an ama hut, or stop by the community for a bite. Ama hut Hachiman-Kamado is the most popular restaurant in Toba, according to TripAdvisor with a top ranking from the site.

Women from outside the community are also joining their ranks. Despite having never dived or snorkeled before, Rikako Sato, who once worked for a major gas appliance company in Nagoya, was attracted by the independent lifestyle of the ama.

“It seems well balanced,” she says. “Ama work just a few hours a day. They can use the other time for taking care of their children and family.”

Rikako thought it might be a good idea to wait for a few years before pursuing ama diving but then realized the ama in Ijika, where her husband is from, is an aging population, and few girls are being trained to take over their roles. So she literally jumped in. Now she’s learning the tricks of the trade from her elderly neighbour, who has been an ama diver for more than 60 years.

“My neighbour (and master) is now 80 years old, but she’s still so healthy and active and good at catching abalone,” Rikako says.

For some potential newcomers, the income potential is a concern. “Few ama earn a lot of money,” says Rikako, but they can earn as much as their husbands (often fishermen), or sometimes more. “It depends on the season and the person,” she said. “In summer, I guess people earn around $100–$500 per day.”

But it is the prized abalone desired by all ama that can fetch the most at market. “One abalone will make $20-$50,” says Rikako. “I could catch 5-10 abalones a day.”

After moving to Ijika, Rikako opened a guest house in the town, both as an extra form of income and to welcome people to the village to learn about the community. She hopes she can show other younger Japanese women that the lifestyle can be a good career choice still.

“Like me, newcomers who have had different experiences and been educated differently are coming to become ama,” says Rikako. “I think we are now at the moment of a change of guard. I think we can make it better, and ama culture will exist for the next hundreds and thousands of years.”

This article was commissioned as part of a series for Make Change, part of Aspiration Green Finance >>>