Ama, the fearless mermaids of Japan


There are always interesting things about the Land of Sakura. In addition to its exotic tourist destinations, Japan also has a variety of interesting traditions to explore. One of the lesser known but fascinating parts of Japanese culture is that of their Mermaids. Mermaids have long held mysticism and fascination for many. They are believed to be aquatic creatures with the upper body of a human female and a fish tail instead of legs. The first tales of mermaids can be traced back to ancient Assyria, where the goddess Atargatis was driven by remorse after she accidentally killed her human lover and then transformed herself into a mermaid. In Greek mythology, mermaids are considered the alluring sirens of the sea. In the movies, the mermaid is depicted as a beautiful woman who lives in the ocean.

If mermaids are only fictional characters in movies, it’s different with Japan. The mermaid referred to here is human specialised in freediving some 30 feet down into cold water wearing nothing more than a loincloth. She is Ama (海女 in Japanese), literally means ‘woman of the sea’ who depend their life on the sea as pearl divers. They are also known as uminchu in Okinawan orkaito in the Izu peninsula. As yet, this freediving tradition still exists and is carried out by women in Japan. An Ama is assigned to dive to the bottom of the sea, in search of seafood that will later be offered to Japanese temples and emperors. Historically, this tradition has been carried out for 2,000 years. Ama itself has appeared since 750 AD in the Man’yoshu poetry collection. Ethno-historians believe that they initially travelled with the currents from continental Asia across to southern Japan where they were divided into two types of nomadic communities. One group travelled to the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and the other, to the north Japan Sea coast. According to local legend, one group was carried away by a typhoon to the north and was shipwrecked on the shores of Noto Peninsula on the Japan Sea. Even today, descendants of the original women ama divers still practice the ancient tradition and continue with the semi-nomadic customs in the village of Osatsu along the coast of the Ise-Shima region in Mie Prefecture.

Ama’s most profitable pursuit was diving for pearls. Traditionally for them, finding a pearl inside an oyster was akin to receiving a large bonus while they went about their ancestral practice of collecting shellfish. However, that changed when Kokichi Mikomoto, founder of Mikimoto Pearl, began his enterprise. Pearls from oysters are no longer the prized catch for the modern-day women ama divers. Rather these are snails, clams, local abalone, and sea urchins, depending on the season. 

Ama only wears a fundoshi (loincloth) to make her movements easier in the water and uses a tenugi (bandana) to protect her hair. Dressed in nothing but panties, these fearless women plunged 12-meters into the frigid sea of ​​Japan. Having good diving skills, Ama can hold his breath for up to 2 minutes in the water. After World War II, Kokichi Mikimoto employed Ama for his famous pearl company but designed a white diving costume for them after noting the surprise of foreigners who observed their work. As a matter of fact, some are even wearing modern wetsuits. When diving, Ama carries a sukari or net which is used to carry his catch. The sukari will be tied to Ama’s body so it doesn’t come off. In addition, they also tied a rope around their waist that connected them to the boat. When they were done, they signalled to their comrades on the boat to pull them back to the surface. Every day, Ama works multiple shifts, spending about two hours in the water. When the shift changes, they will sunbathe on the beach.

In earliest times, Ama could spend 6-8 hours in the sea every day. They should have a tough physique to dive without using oxygen cylinders and must be able to survive in the cold sea. Amazingly, most Ama have been divers for decades since they started when they were young. This tradition was passed down by the mother and relatives. By the time they are 14 years old, they are usually ready to dive. Not hunting with his bare hands, Ama used to be equipped with pointed bamboo to hunt marine animals. These female divers will look for oysters, pearls, seaweed, sea cucumbers, and more. These catches will vary in number and are greatly influenced by the season. Uniquely, after diving and coming to the surface, these female divers will exhale while whistling slowly. This whistle is called an isobue. This technique is a hereditary heritage that serves to help the divers breathe. Because it has been done for a very long time, Ama have a larger lung capacity compared to ordinary people. Usually, Japanese women have carried out this tradition from early to old. Many of the Ama are up to 80 years old and still carry out this diving tradition.

Also known as the mother of the ocean, Ama is only practiced by women. This is because the Japanese believe that women are more suitable for diving because they have a fatter layer, so they can withstand the body’s warm temperature in cold sea. Also, in ancient times there were not many job options for women. So, diving and looking for marine products to sell, are in great demand by women in coastal areas. The area’s most famous for this tradition are Toba City and Mie.

Today, the number of Ama in Japan is getting less and less. After education for women improved and Japan’s economy grew significantly in the 1960’s and the 1970’s many Japanese girls choose not to follow in their mother’s or grandmother’s footsteps to become Ama. Many women in Japan have more job options and the number of Ama is declining. In the post-World War II period, the number of Ama who originally reached 20,000 people, now numbered only 2,000 people in 2017. Even so, there are also young women who want to continue this tradition and continue to dive and become an Ama into old age. They still maintain this tradition from generation to generation to other family members in order to keep it sustainable.

Women divers were first mentioned on an ancient scroll from 927. The rich and colourful ama divers’ history is showcased at the Mikimoto Pearl Island Museum in Toba, which has a collection of ancient tools (like bone knives) found on the sea floor of the nearby areas that date back 3,000 years. Ama women divers do not need any modern-day apparatus like what helps deep sea divers breathe and stay longer underwater. With their graceful movements and garbed in their traditional white uniform believed to keep sharks away, an ama diver can make any lonely sailor see a gorgeous mermaid emerging from the depths of the ocean.

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