In celebration of International Women’s Day 2019, I wanted to shine a spotlight on the ama, a title that has been ascribed to the famous female pearl divers of Japan.
Ama, which means “sea woman” in Japanese, have been diving in Japan for 2,000 to 3,000 years with records dating back to an 8th-century anthology of Japanese poetry: the Man’yōshū. Historically, women were considered fit to be ama because their higher fat content would help them endure the near-freezing temperatures of seawater that they had to dive in. They would begin their ama training at the age of 12 with an older family member and would then dive until they were 70 or 80 years old.
While ama didn’t historically dive for pearls, the demand for ama increased after Kōkichi Mikimoto developed a method for culturing pearls in1893 Dressed in all-white “suits”, the Mikimoto ama would guard these cultivation operations in the water. Additionally, because producing a pearl requires introducing an irritant (such as a grain of sand) into an oyster, the ama would also place the oysters out of harm’s way once the intruder was introduced.
The ama didn’t always wear white suits – their traditional attire consisted of fundoshi (loincloths) and tenugui (bandannas) that covered their hair. The only modern concessions that ama today have made are the use of SCUBA masks and neoprene dive suits; they still eschew tanks filled with compressed air and free-dive to depths of 30 feet, sometimes holding their breath for up to two minutes. They ama also have a characteristic Isobue (“ocean whistle”), where they let out a long, slow whistle when they re-surface that helps regulate their breathing.
With more job opportunities available for women today, there are fewer ama than their used to be: there were over 17,000 ama in the 1950s, but now there are less than 2,000. Similarly, the female divers of South Korea, the haenyo are also declining. Although, commercial fishing threatens the ama way of life, there are still many active ama that use their skills to catch seafood, as most ama did before the pearl industry was established. They are also a popular tourist attraction on Mikimoto Pearl Island, where they frequently perform diving demonstrations.
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