Japan’s Aphrodisiac, Freediving Women of the Sea

by Owen James Burke

ama

(Photo: Fosco Maraini)

Poetry dating as far back as 750 A.D. tells of a bold and dauntless group of Japanese women designated as the country’s huntresses of the deep. The Ama (“women of the sea”) would spend their days diving to depths of 30 feet and holding their breaths for two minutes at a time in search of abalone, seaweed and other shellfish, all in uncomfortably brisk waters, unclothed.

There are not many Ama left these days, and they wear wetsuits now, but up until 1964, before the introduction and advent of neoprene, these skinny-dipping sea goddesses were donning nothing but a loincloth, if even. It is said that women were chosen for the job due to their higher percentage of body fat, which allowed them to bear cold water when and where men could (or more likely would) not.

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(Photo: Yoshiyuki Iwase)

At first glance, the conditions under which these women survived may appear to be borderline oppressive, but the self-reliance and individualism upon which the livelihood is structured actually allowed them to support themselves, an opportunity which  cultures today do not even allow women (let alone those of the days of yore).

There were only 2,174 Ama left in Japan as of 2010, 1/8 of the numbers reported in 1956. Sadly, as is the way of old world maritime traditions, numbers are still on a severe decline, and most of the Ama who are still active are elderly (some, shockingly, into their 90s). Even with wetsuits available, young women are not as quick to stretch tight rubber suits around their bodies and risk their lives for something which they their parents can likely afford to buy.

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(Photo: Yoshiyuki Iwase)

So, in an effort to revive this extraordinary piece of cultural heritage, Japan has gone the way of South Korea and the Haenyo divers of Jeju Island, by recommending female divers to move to coastal towns like those in the Tohoku region of Japan and keep the tradition alive.

As for the skinny dipping days, well, they’re mostly over. There were (fortunately) a number of photographers who found themselves photographing these women.

Then there was this strange 1959 black and white depiction of the Ama, which looks to be filled with all the classic intrigues of film like love, betrayal and murder, the women appear to be clothed:

A recent NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) film, “Amachan,” which was produced in hopes of stirring interest in young female divers, stars a young girl who moves out to the coast to become an Ama diver (though it looks a bit cheesy by the cover).

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(Photo: 三重大学図書館)

And, lastly, for the more historically- and factually- vested mind, there’s a wonderful documentary on modern-day Ama divers:

I think, however, we have to say that we’re most thankful for these two photographers, Yoshiyuki Iwase, 1904-2001, and Fosco Maraini 1912-2004, who so graciously documented this obscure time and place in nautical history.

Read more on a little blog about Japan called gakuran — OB

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