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Ama: The Freediving Fisherwomen of Japan

In ancient times, the only way to gather food and other resources, such as sponge and pearl, from the sea bed was to hold one’s breath and dive to the bottom—a technique known as skin diving or freediving. The longer the diver could hold his breath, the longer he could stay underwater and the more he could collect without having to come up for air. The modern breathing apparatus has made this hazardous profession obsolete. Today, skin-diving is performed mostly as a form of competitive sport to demonstrate one’s skills and endurance. But there are still cultures around the world that thrive to keep alive this traditional practice. The Ama are one of them.

Ama: The Freediving Fisherwomen of Japan

An Ama diver at the Mikimoto Island pearl farming facility. Photo: Stefan Lins/Flickr

Ama means “sea women”. These are Japanese female free-divers who make a living from the ocean collecting seaweed, shellfish, sea urchins, pearls, and abalone to sell at the market. Wearing nothing but a loincloth, these fearless women free-dive up to 40 feet into the cold water, holding their breath for as long as sixty seconds at a time.

Historical records show the tradition dates back to at least 2,000 years. During Japan's Heian period (794 to 1185 AD), Ama were known to dive for seafood and were honored with the task of retrieving abalone for shrines and imperial emperors. Women were preferred because they tend to have an extra layer of fat on their bodies, which help insulate them against the cold waters.

Traditionally, the Ama dove wearing only a fundoshi (loincloth) to ease movement in water and a tenugi (bandana) to cover their hair. They tied a rope around their waists, connecting them to the boat. Once they were done, they would tug the rope to signal to their crew that they are ready to resurface. The tradition is still maintained across many coastal parts of Japan, but Ama divers now cover their nakedness with a white cotton attire. Others have embraced modern technology such as black wetsuits and flippers.

Ama: The Freediving Fisherwomen of Japan

Photo: Iwase Yoshiyuki

The Ama work in multiple shifts, spending a total of about two hours a day underwater. Between shifts they spend time on the beach warming up under the sun or by a fire. Local fishing regulations require them to work no more than 4 hours a day, but in the past Ama divers spent as many as 6-8 hours in the water every day.

Diving naked into the cold water, braving freezing temperatures and the intense pressure all the while holding their breath is so physically punishing that many Ama divers are known to shed several kilograms of weight during the diving season in a space of few months. Yet, many divers continue working till ripe old age. It is not unusual to find Ama divers in their seventies and eighties and still be prime in health.

Girls born into Ama families start training when they are only a few years old. They learn the skills from their mothers and other elder women in the family. By the time they reach 14, they are usually ready to dive.

Once there were thousands of Ama divers across Japan. But their numbers are fast falling as the newer generation of women are shunning away from the profession of their mothers. According to a 2010 survey, there are only around two thousand Ama divers left in the nation. Most of them live around Toba and Shima in the Mie prefecture, where there is a cultured pearl firm. The Japanese entrepreneur Mikimoto Kōkichi, and his pearl culturing business, is responsible to a large extent in reviving this dying profession.

Ama: The Freediving Fisherwomen of Japan

Ama: The Freediving Fisherwomen of Japan

Photo: Eishin Osaki

Ama: The Freediving Fisherwomen of Japan

Photo: Fosco Maraini

Ama: The Freediving Fisherwomen of Japan

Photo: Fosco Maraini

Ama: The Freediving Fisherwomen of Japan

Ama divers pulling in a boat. circa 1950.

Ama: The Freediving Fisherwomen of Japan

Ama divers, circa 1950.

Ama: The Freediving Fisherwomen of Japan

Two pearl divers wade in the surf carrying their nets. Photo: Horace Bristol/CORBIS

Ama: The Freediving Fisherwomen of Japan

Photo: Iwase Yoshiyuki

Ama: The Freediving Fisherwomen of Japan

An Ama pearl diver at Mikimoto Pearl Island. Photo: Fg2/Wikimedia Commons

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