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Ama: The Women of the Sea

Whenever I think of pearls, Audrey Hepburn's portrayal in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" comes to mind. Her unspoken elegance and beauty and that iconic black dress adorned with pearls, perfectly epitomizes allure. Interestingly, in Japan, it's not uncommon to see women on trains dressed similarly in black dresses, with their hair done up and pearls around their necks. However, contrary to what one might assume, they are not on their way to a party but to a funeral instead. This attire follows a specific cultural dress code for funerals in Japan.

You might wonder how this connects to today's topic. The answer lies in the rich history of Japan's coastlines, where, over 2000 years ago, women known as Ama divers plunged into the sea to collect mother-of-pearl shells known as Akoya-gai and abalone. Today, I am eager to share insights into one of the most fascinating subjects I have ever explored: the Ama divers. These remarkable women embody a deep understanding of the human body and the ancient practice of free diving.

In Japanese, "Ama" (海女) combines the kanji for "sea" (海) and "woman" (女). When I pronounce "Ama", my mother's image comes to my mind, there is some nurturing feeling in this word. Many of you may have heard of them or seen documentaries, but my approach is to 'dive' into the scientific aspects, exploring what happens to their bodies after diving, alongside sharing some quick facts and faith/festivals.

History of Ama (海女 )

Being a woman free diver is a cool job title, which I would also like to have, but apparently, it's not a very easy thing to do. We tend to romanticize the idea of the sea, diving with holiday, but for Ama, this is a job. As a matter of fact, Ama continue to dive until they reach their fifties.

Traditionally, there are two types of Ama: cachido and funado. Cachido, young girls in training, dive unassisted to depths of 5-7 meters, staying underwater for about fifteen seconds. They can dive up to sixty times an hour without the risk of the bends due to the shallow depth. Funado, the most skilled divers, reach greater depths of around 20 meters, each assisted by a boatman. Is often practiced by husband and wife team or other family members.

Photo Credit:https://amakoya.com/

Once in the water, the boatmen relax and I want to imagine him singing and perhaps grab a can of beer. If the diver needs to surface, she tugs the cord, and the men quickly pull her up. She then clings to the boat, catching her breath.

Photo Credit
Photo Credit: Girls watching awabi-divers at Enoshima, from a triptych painted by the great Ukioye artist Utamaro about 1789.

In Toba and Shima of Mie prefecture, Ama harvest a variety of marine life including abalone, turban shell, tokobushi, rock oyster, spiny lobster, sea urchin, sea cucumber, arame, hijiki, and amanita.

You might wonder, how long have they been doing this? Ama fishing likely dates back to the Jomon period, as evidenced by abalone shells found at the Shirahama ruins in Ura Village, Toba City, indicating early free diving. Reason is that abalone and other shellfish is hidden deep under the sea and in rocks and the only way to get it is to dig it out. Historical records, including a tribute tag from 745 AD, mention abalone being brought to the capital from what is now Shima City. Furthermore, the Manyoshu, an ancient poetry collection, contains poems by Otomo Ieyamochi and Yamagami Nokira about ama fishing.

Ah I forgot to mention earlier, the most cool part is that they dive without oxygen tanks, relying on their breath-holding skills. Their work is fraught with danger, including the risk of disorientation underwater and the presence of predatory creatures like sharks. They must accurately gauge their own limits to avoid drowning.

Life under water

Ama divers use a specific breathing technique to fill their lungs with enough oxygen before diving. This technique is often referred to as "isobue," which is a form of controlled breathing. We hear a 'Phew' or a sound similar to a whistle. This hyperventilation process lowers the carbon dioxide levels in the blood, allowing the diver to hold her breath for a longer period underwater by delaying the urge to breathe that is triggered by high carbon dioxide levels.

After these deep breaths, the Ama diver will take a final, large breath to fill her lungs to capacity before diving. The technique helps in maximizing the oxygen intake and efficiently using the body's oxygen stores while diving. However, they also need to be cautious with hyperventilation, as it can lead to hypoxia (lack of oxygen reaching the tissues), which can cause blackout underwater if not managed correctly.

After that she dives vertically down using a heavy weight to help her sink faster, keeping her legs together to move smoothly through the water. At the bottom, she lets go of the weight, gathers sea creatures into a net basket, and then pulls on a rope to signal her partner to pull her up by a lifeline around her waist.

To better understand the process of how they dive, this video captured it very well.

Each dive takes about a minute, with half that time spent at the sea bottom. Between dives, she rests for a minute by the boat. She might dive 50 times in the morning and 50 in the afternoon but takes breaks to warm up after several dives.

Decompression sickness is a major problem for divers, however, the Ama divers may not face this often, but they do have more ear issues than people who don't dive. A study in 1965 found that up to 60% of divers over 50 years old had hearing loss. Problems like tinnitus and eardrum ruptures were also common. Reference: Ashcroft, Frances. Life at the Extremes (pp. 67-68).

For your curiosity, other issues include how being in water affects your body. Typically, gravity pulls blood into your legs. But in water, the pressure pushes about half a liter of blood up to your chest, making your heart work more and changing hormone levels, which increases urine production. That's why you might feel the urge to pee soon after entering water. Also, submerging your face in water slows your heart rate, a response known as the diving reflex. While it's not very pronounced in humans, it's crucial for diving animals like seals.

Quick Facts:

  1. Historically, Ama divers would dive shirtless. However, during the early Showa era, they started wearing "Isogi," initially a white kimono believed to also deter sharks.

  2. The introduction of wetsuits in the 1950s revolutionized the profession, enabling Ama divers to fish in colder waters, such as for sea cucumbers, during winter.

  3. A vital piece of equipment for Ama divers is underwater goggles, known as "iso glasses." Nowadays, single-lens goggles that cover both the eyes and nose are predominantly used. The adoption of underwater goggles began post-1896, initially leading to restrictions on abalone harvesting due to excessive collection.

  4. Ama divers from Shima utilize markings called "Seman" and "Doman" on their equipment, such as hand towels and sea flea tools, to protect against evil spirits.

  5. "Seman" is identified by a star mark drawn in a single stroke, believed to be named after the Onmyoji Abe Kiyoaki, symbolizing a wish for a safe return.

  6. "Doman" features a grid pattern with four vertical and five horizontal lines, named after another Onmyoji, and represents vigilant protection against sea monsters.

    Photo Credit: https://japan-heritage.bunka.go.jp/ja/culturalproperties/result/4295/
  7. The predominance of women in Ama diving is attributed to their higher subcutaneous fat content, which offers better insulation against the cold, making them well-suited for underwater work.

  8. Ama divers historically contributed to the collection of cultured pearls. However, advancements in pearl culturing technology have phased out this role.

  9. Mikimoto Pearl Island offers demonstrations of Akoya pearl oyster collection by Ama divers donned in traditional white Isogi.

  10. "The Sound of Waves" (潮騒), a novel by Yukio Mishima, tells a heartfelt love story between an Ama diver and a fisherman, set in Utashima, inspired by Kamishima in Toba City. The novel has been adapted into movies five times, featuring prominent actresses like Sayuri Yoshinaga and Momoe Yamaguchi as the Ama diver.

  11. Mie Prefecture has established Japan's first Ama Preservation Society, aiming to have Ama diving recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Faith and Festivals:

The life-threatening nature of Ama fishing has given rise to numerous shrines and temples, serving as focal points of faith for the sea-faring community. Among these, Aomineyama Shofuku-ji Temple in Toba and Iza-gu Shrine in Shima stand out, the latter being an extension of the Ise Grand Shrine.

Shofuku-ji Temple on Mt. Aomine is particularly revered for maritime safety, drawing devotion from the wider fishing community around Ise Bay. Its main gate intriguingly incorporates carvings of shrimp and fish amidst dragons, symbolizing its sea heritage.

Furthermore, Toba and Shima host unique festivals to pray for abundant catches and safety at sea. For example, the Shirongo Festival in July sees Ama divers in traditional attire diving for abalone to offer at Shirahige Shrine, symbolizing prayers for prosperity and safety. This festival provides a close look at Ama fishing traditions.

References:

  1. Mie Prefecture Official Website. "Ama Diving - Cultural Heritage." https://www.pref.mie.lg.jp/common/04/000063473.htm.

  2. Japan Heritage. "Story of Ama Divers: Living with the Sea." https://japan-heritage.bunka.go.jp/ja/stories/story073/.

  3. Ashcroft, Frances. Life at the Extremes. HarperCollins Publishers, pp. 67-68.

  4. Toyo Keizai Online. "The Ama Divers of Japan." https://toyokeizai.net/articles/-/113269?page=2.

  5. Cover Photo Credit: https://www.bunka.pref.mie.lg.jp/rekishi/kenshi/asp/shijyo/detail.asp?record=600

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