old women of the sea

Japanese Women Divers
Japanese Women Divers

to be called an ama is a rare honour in japan. it means you are part of a small  but tight-knit group of female shellfish divers who have been immortalised on stamps and in the 1967 james bond film, “you only live once”. sadly, the ama women are a group dwindling in numbers as the unrelenting pace of progress continues to whittle away at yet another culture heritage now threatened by extinction.

the word ‘ama’ literally translates in japanese as ‘women of the sea’ and they dive mostly for different kinds of seaweed and abalone, and have been doing so for more than 1000 years. it is said that this kind of diving has traditionally been a women’s work, since ladies have a different distribution of fat to men, thus enabling them to withstand cold water temperatures. in 2003 the average age for ama divers in the shirama region of japan was 67 years old, the youngest being 50 years old and the oldest 83.

carrying a day's catch

“young women today don’t like the sea as much as we do, they lack courage and don’t want to get their skin darkened by working in the water or the fields,” said motohashi (a 68 year old ama) lamenting the lack of followers in her wake.

shirahama’s ama still earn at least 100,000 yen in the may to september season, with the best divers making around three million yen, a substantial extra income for these women whose main livelihood these days is farming rice, soya, broad beans and flowers.

collecting abalone is hard work. equipped with a long stick, the divers go down about 8-10 metres (26-33 feet), either diving from small boats or swimming out from the beach, and only have as long as their breath holds — about one minute 20 seconds — to prise the molluscs from the rocks. the youngest of the ama stay in the water for up to four hours a day, resting and chatting with friends on a floating wooden box.

one of the most distinctive features of the ama is their loud speaking voice and their laughter. Honed over years of shouting over wind and wave, their voices are deep and brassy. and, in testimony to living a life of danger and hard work, they have very well developed senses of humor and burst into laughter at the slightest provocation.

in the afternoon, after a long, cold day of diving, the women gather around a warming fire in the center of the building and discuss the day’s work and anything else that interests them…

text and images above, researched from various internet sources & youtube clip taken from a documentary film entitled ‘fit surroundings’on the ama divers by david plath and jacquetta hill


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