Found: Japan’s fearless divers
Ama freedivers have become an endangered fishing tradition, but the practitioners are determined to keep the skill thriving.
Sanayo Matsui, 66, looks out at the waves lapping against the rocks in a small bay on the Shima peninsula, close to Toba in southern Japan, and shakes her head. “We won’t be diving today,” she says. “The sea is a bit too rough.”
Instead, Sanayo and her fellow ama diver, Mie Nakasero, settle down in their ama goya, or hut, by the shore and warm their hands on an open fire, known as the kamado. Sanayo has 48 years of experience as an ama, one of a dwindling number of female freedivers whose culture and traditions are believed to date back more than three millennia.
“Weather conditions mean that we can only dive about 60 days a year, and then only between 60 and 90 minutes a day,” says Sanayo. “We might dive to a depth of anywhere from three to 20 metres, and up to 50 seconds on each dive.”
An ama’s catch might include abalone, turban snails, sea cucumber, sea urchins, lobster, oysters, seaweed (a Japanese staple), and, on lucky days, a pearl or two. They use a kaginomi, which is a hooked chisel to prise the shellfish from the rock and part the shell. On a good day each ama can collect up to 13 kilos, worth as much as 135,000 yen (1,000 euros), depending on the catch.
Originally ama would dive naked but during the 20th-century they adopted a traditional outfit comprising a long-sleeved, hooded white jumpsuit and single-screen goggles. Most divers now opt for a wet suit with a belt of five-kilo weights that helps to expedite their descent to the seabed. Dives can start from the shore or in a group from a boat, and ama etiquette requires each diver to give space for and distance to others in their vicinity.
Bid for UNESCO listing
This female-only means of livelihood was once common right across Japan, but only about 2,000 remain active in 18 prefectures. The Mia prefecture, containing Toba and Shima, is home to more than 750 ama. Younger women are less inclined to take up the ancient practice, so the numbers are declining annually.
The wind has finally died down and Michiko Nakamura and Sayuri Nakamura emerge from the sea with baskets brimming with shellfish and seaweed. After shedding their wetsuits, they settle in the ama goya, peering into the flames, joking and chatting.
“Ama diving has always been in my family but I never really thought I would end up being an ama,” says Michiko. “We come here to the ama goya after a dive to warm up and to talk about what went well, what we found, or couldn’t find.”
Most ama seem passionate about diving, although all ama can remember at least one occasion when they were truly scared, Michiko recalls.
“Once I was diving at a depth of about four metres and got caught in the rope attached to my basket. I was on my last breath when I got the attention of another diver who came to help me untangle the rope. Most health issues come later in life, especially with breathing problems. It can be dangerous. But the money can be very good,” she says.
There is still a sense of community in these fishing villages, where everyone helps out. Michiko points out that the practice is as much to do with tradition as financial gain. A move to get ama diving listed with UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status, inspired by the dwindling number of divers, confirms a sense of cultural pride in this unique source of livelihood.
Text and photos Tim Bird