The Disappearing Ama: Japan's Tough, Topless, Free-Diving Mermaids

The Disappearing Ama: Japan's Tough, Topless, Free-Diving Mermaids

In the 1920s, a young law school graduate named Yoshiyuki Iwase left Tokyo and returned to his hometown of Onjuku, a fishing village in eastern Japan. With an early Kodak camera, he began documenting the traditions of the ama, women who dove for seaweed, shellfish, and most famously, pearls. What remains of Iwase’s multi-decade career is the most comprehensive record of a legendarily tough, beautiful female community that today is almost all but gone.

Depending on the characters used, the word ama means literally “women of the sea” or “people of the sea.” Men would occasionally dive, too, but it was believed that the fat content of women’s bodies better armed them for plunging into frigid waters. In Japan, the tradition is said to be 2,000 years old. Before the invention of wetsuits, ama would customarily dive wearing only loincloths—it is easier to warm up without wet clothes clinging to your skin—and an experienced diver could go as deep as 30 meters and hold her breath for as long as two minutes at a time. The ama dived from the shore or from boats, with rope strung around their waists, and men would wait in the boats above to pull them back up.

Iwase’s photographs, taken from the 1930s through the 60s, suggest the sort of intense bond forged only through shared—and often grueling—labor. In one, the ama push a boat ashore, their strong, bronzed bodies taut with the effort. In another, they huddle around a fire after a dive; what you can see of their faces through the clouds of smoke reveals that they are smiling. In another, two women lounge on the beach, gritty with sand, their dive masks pushed up to their foreheads. They’re beaming at each other. Iwase’s images communicate a barrage of sensory information—studying them, we can imagine filling our lungs with precious air and plummeting to the icy depths, rummaging, through the murk, for abalone or oysters. Then the return to the surface, wading through the shallows, carrying baskets of the day’s haul, the sun drying our skin. The risk and the difficulty, the physical toll the work took, as well as its rewards, were things the ama, as women living in a culture with rigid gender expectations, shared only with each other.

50 years later, a German photographer named Nina Poppe visited another group of ama near Ise, home to Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrine. Her photographs reveal an aging community, in which most of the divers are middle-aged or elderly. Her images, compared to Iwase’s, which feel full of chatter and activity, are muted and even lonely in tone. In many of the frames, only a single ama is visible: a distant pair of upturned fins in a vast sea, a sole woman pushing her cart full of diving gear along a road. It’s clear this once rich and romanticized culture is now significantly diminished—but how did it happen?

Sei Shonagon, the 11th century noblewoman who wrote The Pillow Book, a collection of her opinions and observations, encountered the ama during her travels and described their work with trepidation: “One wonders what would happen to them if the cord round their waist was to break.” At the same time the ama were risking their lives far beneath the choppy waters, Sei Shoganon wrote, “the men sit comfortably in their boats, heartily singing songs… they do not show the slightest concern about the risks the woman is taking.”

Socially, the ama‘s labor was certainly less valued than that of men. Dolores P. Martinez, an anthropologist who studied the ama, notes in her book Identity and Ritual in a Japanese Diving Village that men only deigned to dive when times were lean for standard fishing. Under the Tokugawa shogunate, the feudal military rulers who reigned from 1603 to 1868, all those who fished and hunted were classified as hinnin—”wandering people who, in Buddhist terms, were engaged in polluting work,” Martinez writes. Even today, discrimination in Japan persists against those who work or are descended from people who worked in industries associated with death and impurity.

That said, under the Tokugawa regime, ama were granted a measure of freedom and wealth unusual for Japanese women at the time. Because they often dived for abalone, a luxury food item coveted by the wealthy classes, they were given preferential treatment by governmental authorities. Arne Kalland, author of Fishing Villages in Tokugawa Japan, writes that this feudal protection “gave them access to the waters of other villages both within the province and elsewhere.” Therefore, the ama frequently migrated, and often their relatives would travel with them, from one province to the next. Martinez writes that the ama were idealized as people who “lived away from the constraints of the dominant society,” not to mention somewhat unfeminine, physically strong and roughened by the sea.

This is perhaps too simple, but it is important to note how singular ama were among women in pre-20th century Japan. The Neo-Confucianism popular in the country at the time dictated a hierarchy of human relationships in which wives were their husband’s subjects. Out of this philosophy came the “Onna Daigaku,” or “Manual for Women,” which instructed that the three people a woman must obey are “her own father in her home before marriage, her husband after she is married, and her children after her husband’s death.” A woman who could not only earn her own living but also dictate the migration of her entire family, then, was uniquely liberated.

Many of the cultural references to ama are romantic in nature. In the Noh drama Matsukaze, two ama sisters share a lover and then die of grief upon his departure; their ghosts, forlorn and alluring, visit a traveling priest who passes through their seaside village. In Yukio Mishima’s novel The Sound of Waves, an ama named Hatsue is portrayed in contrast to Chiyoko, a girl who has left her home to study in a Tokyo university. Chiyoko is selfish and manipulative where Hatsue is pure of heart and full of healthy sensuality, and she wins the love of Shinji, the book’s protagonist. Finally, there is Kissy Suzuki from the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice, a Western fantasy of an ama, and the only Bond girl lucky enough to bear the special agent’s child.

Martinez writes that “one strand of the representation of divers as erotic comes from the simple fact that there has long existed a strong association between water, origins, and the female sex in Japan: The sea is female, as is the sea god; so are boats.” That they dived topless may also inform this representation, but the Japanese don’t share the same squeamishness about baring their bodies as Americans do; communal nude bathing in onsen, natural hot springs, is an important aspect of the culture. In fact, ama only began covering up after World War II, when an influx of tourism brought Western visitors who objected to their nudity. Beginning in the late 19th century, Kokichi Mikimoto employed ama for his famous pearl company, but designed a white diving costume for them after noting the surprise of foreigners who observed their work. Mikimoto now holds diving demonstrations for entertainment purposes only, and throughout the nation, ama communities are likewise seriously diminished.

Today, the number of ama has dwindled to a couple thousand, most of whom are in their 40s or older. The modernization of fishing techniques led to overfishing, which, along with the impact of climate change on underwater ecosystems, has made it far more challenging for divers to earn a living. Another issue is connected to a crisis felt throughout Japan: the nation’s population is aging—in 50 years, half of all Japanese will be over 65—and young people are leaving their rural hometowns and heading for the cities. Traditional occupations have lost their appeal.

Last month, Japanese broadcaster NHK aired a documentary called “Three Generations of Ama,” which looks at a family of divers. The program focuses particularly on 23-year-old Shizuka, who is intent on joining her grandmother and mother in their work. Though Shizuka loves learning the ama trade, most of her peers have left town for urban centers like Osaka, and she is by far the youngest diver in her community. Her friends beg her not to pursue a career as an ama, calling it “obaachan no shigoto“—a job for grandmothers—and it does seem as though rural culture in Japan, and with it traditional ways of living off the land, is disappearing. (An older ama in the film reminisces about how she used to pass time in the “ama hut,” and the camaraderie she felt with her fellow divers, but says that no one goes there anymore.)

Further complicating matters are legal issues surrounding fishing licenses, which must remain within particular communities. (This law was originally enacted to ensure sustainability and help ama to maintain their livelihoods.) If Shizuka one day marries someone from outside her hometown—a strong possibility, given the lack of people her age there—she will have to change her name and relinquish her permission to dive. Eventually, it is suggested, Shizuka will have to make a choice between working and starting a family.

This is a choice that women throughout Japan, not only within the specialized ama community, find themselves facing. A cornerstone of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policy is his goal of filling 30% of leadership positions with women by 2020, but today the country’s female employment rate remains among the lowest in the industrialized world. Japanese businesses are notorious for their expectations of long working hours, and with few childcare options available, many women are forced to stay home after giving birth. No wonder, then, that some opt out of marriage and motherhood entirely.

This dilemma is one that ama were uniquely exempt from for generations. As this community ages out of existence and passes into legend, Japan will lose a rare and precious example of what women are capable of: strength, autonomy, discovery, the ability to control the shape of their own families.

Alanna Schubach is a freelance writer living in Queens, NY. She has written for Dame, Al Jazeera America, Refinery29, the Village Voice, and more. Follow her at @AlannaSchu.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

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