One of the most fascinating but lesser known traditions of Japan is that of the Amasan – which literally translates to ‘the women of the sea’. Honed by years of experience, the Amasan are professional divers who rely on their diving speed, lung capacity, great intuition and determination to succeed. While they dive for seaweed, sea cucumber, sea urchin and lobster, abalone is the most prized catch. The term ‘Ama’ dates back to as early as 750 AD and is found in ancient Japanese poetry recorded in the Man’yoshi.
Although the tradition is still maintained, the original practices of diving have been lost with time. We were quite thrilled to stumble on the phenomenal work of Fosco Maraini. Through his book: The Island of the Fisher-women he captured the indispensable role the Amasan play, particularly in the cultivation of pearls, and sustainable fishing.
Amasan Woman Divers
In the book, he explains that the Ama utilized special skills that allowed them to dive as deep as 30 meters, without scuba gear. They would dive for up to 2 minutes, emerge up to the surface and breath letting out a whistle sound known as the isobue. The Japanese concluded that women were better suited for this job because women have a self-supporting nature and the ability to live independently. Perhaps another valid point would be that women naturally have an extra layer of fat, which protected them from the freezing sea. (We think these women are just mermaid sea goddesses).
Today, the number of Amasan woman divers has significantly decreased, partly due to disinterest from the younger generation. Stats show that in 2017 alone, more than 70% of the divers are 50 – 80 years old.
Can the Ama Culture of Japan Stand the Test of Time?
It seems with globalization, the Ama people have not only adopted a more ‘culturally appropriate’ diving gear, the future is uncertain. Passion is a driving force for this culture, therefore the village has adopted various tactics to create a more sustainable fishing environment. Even so, the seaweed does not grow as much as before, and if it does, it is of lower quality.
Ama, the legendary women divers of Japan, have been practicing sustainable fishing for hundreds of years, but climate change coupled with overfishing is bringing them face to face with an uncertain future.