Did you know that some of the oldest known free divers originated from Japan? And they were female?
Perhaps you remember the scene from James Bond’s “You Only Live Twice” where the world-famous spy becomes romantically involved with Kissy Suzuki, a scantly clad ama diver. After doing a little research it became quite obvious to me that ama divers are hard working women and Kissy just doesn’t do them or their trade justice.
Ama divers, also called uminchu (in Okinawan) or kaito (in Izu Peninsula), are thought to have a heritage dating back to the oldest known free diver in the world. Believed to have started 1,500-2,000 years ago, Ama divers originally scoured the ocean floor for seafood like abalone, seaweed, shellfish, octopus, spiny lobsters, and sea urchin. Today, ama divers are mainly known for collecting pearls at Mikimoto Pearl Island; however, there is still a small segment of the ama divers who remain true to their heritage.
Today’s divers have altered their garb by wearing wetsuits, weightbelts, and modern masks. It wasn’t until about 30 years ago that the ama divers stopped wearing a single loincloth and opted to wear a wetsuit. Because of this, they are now able to dive for up to 4 hours a day. Eye protection was also unavailable to the original ama divers but when swim goggles were invented ama divers quickly modified them to be used for deep water. “The Ama diving women of Japan adapted their swim goggles for deep diving by attaching small rubber air-filled bulbs to each eyepiece. With descent and increasing ambient pressure, the bulbs collapsed. This increased air pressure in the goggles and prevented a pressure differential from building up between the inside of the goggles and the water outside.” (Strauss) Talk about being clever!
Ama Dive Goggles
Although the population of ama divers has declined by 80% since the 1960’s, there is still a vibrant population located on Toba/Ise Island of the Mie prefecture in Japan. “The coast line here is rugged, indented with pebbly bays with rocky headlands, ideal habitat for uni (sea urchin), awabi (abalone), various forms of kaiso (seaweeds) and ise ebi (pacific spiny lobster).” (Holmes) There are several sites where you can observe ama divers hard at work and also meet up with them after they’ve brought their catch in to be sold at market or at their amagoya (ama hut). To learn more about visiting these local sites in Toba/Ise Island please visit: http://www.centraljapan.jp/history_details.php?id=47
“In 1965, a good ama could earn the equivalent of 10 million yen (84,750 dollars) in today’s money for a season’s work, from April to September, one month longer than the season these days, said Osashi Matsumoto, head of the Shirahama cooperative.” (Kadri) Today, ama divers can earn about 3 million yen (about $38,000) per season. The expansion of commercial fishing has been the largest factor in the decline of ama divers….or…as Kotoyo Motohashi, a 68 year old ama diver, says, “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.”
“All Sizes | MASKED MERMAIDS IN WHITE NIGHTGOWNS SWIMMING WITH SEA BUCKETS | Flickr – Photo Sharing!” Welcome to Flickr – Photo Sharing. Flickr, 29 Dec. 2009. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/24443965@N08/4226817756/sizes/o/in/photostream/>.
“Ama Goggles Hanging – AMA.” Skin Diving History. Skin Diving History. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <http://www.skindivinghistory.com/miscellaneous/ama/Ama_Goggles_Hanging/index.html>.
Holmes, Kenneth. “Mie and Toba: Ama Divers of Toba.” Central Japan Information, Nagoya, Aichi, Gifu, Mie. Central Japan, 09 Sept. 2008. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <http://www.centraljapan.jp/history_details.php?id=47>.
Kadri, Francoise. “Japan’s Ama Women Divers.” ThingsAsian.com. Things Asian, 15 June 2003. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <http://www.thingsasian.com/stories-photos/2573>.
Strauss, Michael B., and Igor V. Aksenov. Diving Science. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2004. Print.