The Charms and Possibilities of ‘Ama’ (female divers)

by Akira Tsukamoto (Mie University Faculty of Humanities) 

   In recent years, the Ama (female divers) of Toba and Shima have been attracting attention. About ten years ago, an organization, called the Ama Promotion Association was formed with officials from the Sea-Folk Museum, where officials of administrative agencies, fishermen's cooperatives, and commerce chairs, and a summit of Ama are held every year with efforts to protect the culture of Ama.

In 2017, the "Ama" female diving culture was designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan, and it also became a Japanese agricultural heritage. Activities aiming to register Ama culture as a World Cultural Heritage Site are also ongoing. There are Ama divers along the coastline of Japan, but around half of the nationwide Ama divers are active in Toba City and Shima City of Mie prefecture. From the past to the present, the land of Toba and Shima are considered to be the "home" of Ama divers.

   However, the number of Ama divers is declining and currently there is a combined total of 700 divers, from the two cities of Toba and Shima. The number of abalones caught by Ama divers are also declining and the annual fishing revenue is only a few hundred million yen at best. Japan's GDP is about 500 trillion yen, and one Toyota company is worth 28 trillion yen. The tourism industry is said to be around 20 trillion yen. Even looking at the fishing industry, the economic activities of Ama diving are not that significant, since it is about 700 billion yen overall in Japan and about 50 billion yen in Mie prefecture.


   So why are the efforts to promote sea fishing and Ama culture done with a lot of labor and with so little money? What exactly are the charms of Ama divers? How do their activities contribute to the people of modern society?

   Ama divers are women who carry simple tools and capture shellfish and seaweed. It is estimated that the Ama diving culture began during the primitive society thousands of years ago. Under the ancient ruling nation, Shima Province was positioned as "the land of food", which dedicated its seafood to the capital. It was the Ama divers of Shima and fishermen, who supported the rich diet of the citizens. After the Middle Ages, Shima’s Ama divers had deepened their relationship with Ise Shrine. First, the abalones caught by the Ama divers were used as ingredients for the treats offered to the Shrine guests, and made one feel the gratitude of Ise. A large amount of abalones were processed into "Noshi Awabi" (a thin string of dried abalone, often tied to a gift) and used for ceremonies, as well as a souvenir for the priest to invite people to visit the Shrine. In modern times, "pearls and Ama" became the symbols of Ise Shima sightseeing, which you can find illustrated on posters and pamphlets at many of the main attractions.

   The significance of Ama culture is that it is the primary form of fishing, capturing sea creatures from the seabed using just the hands and body, during an age when advanced machines and civilization flourish. The core method of diving for catching various shellfish and seaweeds has been passed down for thousands of years without changing the basic methods. Unlike cultivation and aquaculture, getting food directly from the natural world itself is said to be the starting point of "working". For the Toba and Shima area, Ama divers have been the symbol of the region for a long time.

   Why are all Ama divers women? There are various reasons, such as having a resistance to cold due to the thickness of subcutaneous fat, and the division of labor where men went offshore as fishing technology further developed and women continued diving, etc. It is crucial to note that in traditional Japanese society, women were allowed to show skin while working. Female fishers were absent among Islamic countries, and East Asian countries where Confucianism teachings dominated the society. At the same time, western society was heavily influenced by a culture of chivalry. Such religious teachings and differences in morality that dominated these societies resulted in social restrictions on women’s activities. Therefore, the custom of women free-diving did not exist among these societies. Although diving is widely practiced around the world, the Ama tradition is only found in Japan and Jeju Island in Korea. Jeju island was a place of exile from the Korean Peninsula, and it was considered a place of exception where Ama culture was able to thrive.

   Fishing conducted by a man and woman pair, called Funado is the most developed form of sea fishing, which is also described in Sei Shonagon's (a poet and court lady) "Makuranososhi", which is a unique characteristic of Japan that can not be found in Korea. The roles were divided between men and women, but they worked together as a team. The strong power of men was used to control the direction of the boat and to pull up the Ama divers from underwater, and women who are good at working beneath the surface of the sea did the diving part. It is said to be the oldest and ideal method, by working together to lend each other's specialty according to their gender. Ama fishing does not only consist of women. The role of Tomae (the ship's head) is a part of the Noriai method, a style of riding the boat together, where men observe the fishing activities and protect the safety of Ama divers: it is a role that should not be overlooked. Furthermore, the existence of a traditional culture of Ama is an important factor in reviewing the Japanese culture, in which the culture of the society is often regarded as having strong discrimination against women.

   The "Mie Prefecture Fishing Illustrations" created in the early Meiji era show an example of how men were forbidden to dive for fish. The reason why men were forbidden from diving for fish in the sea is because men are reckless, he often causes accidents as he does not fear danger and desires greedily for his prey. Ama (female divers) do not seek to make profits alone. Instead, they have plenty of wisdom to protect themselves. They will not go out fishing if the sea gets rough. Working together with nature closely is also a characteristic of Ama sea fishing.

   This is also effective in terms of resource management. Although Ama fishing is conducted on rocky beaches near land, unlike offshore fishing, the impact immediately reflects back on them if they try to catch more than they can. For that reason, policies to prevent overfishing, such as restricting the size of shells to catch and restricting tools and equipment have been done since ancient times. They are also sensitive to the environmental protection of the sea, so as not to ruin their workplace.

   In the modern fishing industry, it is pointed out that the way in which the ocean and resources are protected is important, especially the need to effectively manage resources and decide the frame of catch. Restructuring the "sustainable" fishing system as a whole, including maintaining the ocean environment, is a major challenge. In this regard, Ama fishing culture is regarded as the most suitable model.

   For modern fishermen, who make full use of the latest technologies, such as fish finding devices, it is not easy to detect changes in the ocean when we rely so much on technology. It can be said that Ama divers, who dive in the sea making daily trips, fulfill the role of monitoring the environment of the sea.
Friendship among the Ama also has the power to maintain the community. The historic tradition in which the village facing the ocean retains the fishing rights of the local waters, which has since been handed over to the current fishing cooperative association, is not just a right, but also a way to protect the ocean.
What was highlighted in the health survey conducted by doctors from the end of the Meiji era to the Taisho era, was that women doing fishing, which seemed to be dangerous work have surprisingly healthy bodies. It has been reported that these women had excellent physiques, stable blood pressure and delivered babies safely. Ama fishing is work done by using the five senses in the complex world under the surface of the sea, while using the entire body in the vast realm of nature. The style of work is self-directed, maintaining a balance of their own condition, such as taking rests when needed in accordance to their skill and physical condition, while at the same time supporting one another. This had a positive impact on the mind and body.

   In today’s age, people are constantly managed by computers, and because of the pursuit of efficiency and profitable working conditions, there is an increase in the number of people who die from overworking, mental health issues, and other negative health conditions. Ama divers, opposite of most urban workers, operate in conditions that have more flexibility and a freer way of working. In addition, a diet rich in high-quality protein and minerals from seafood and seaweed gathered directly by hand also lead to the good health of Ama divers.

   Ama divers are always full of energy. The fishing villages where the Ama are present often have a positive atmosphere. The societies where women live is cheerful and full of energy and good health.
Projects for preserving the Ama way of life are never for the individual Ama alone. The goal is not to leave an old-fashioned culture in the past as nostalgia or as a hobby of days gone by.

It is an important to protect the fishing villages where the Ama live and also the surrounding regional communities that the Ama exist within. By knowing the way of life of the Ama, it prompts us to reconsider our way of living, working, and relationship with nature today. There are many clues that can be found in the Ama’s way of living that can help us tackle problems that modern society faces, including the overflowing stress and the unbearable conditions that we suffocate ourselves in.