Japanese Ama, Photo by Fosco Maraini

[Underwater Photograph by Fosco Maraini from his book, Hekura, The Diving Girl’s Island.]

I’ve had pearls on the brain lately and it got me to thinking about the ocean, diving, books and movies with diving scenes… specifically, the traditional Japanese women divers, called ‘ama.’

The scene I recall most vividly from a movie is the one from Tampopo. The gangster is at the seaside in his stylin’ cream suit where he sees a young ama, cold and dripping, climbing up onto the rocks with her basket of oysters. She offers him one, he cuts his lip…

I love the last bit where you see the other amas watching from the waves. (Incidentally, if you have never seen this film, you really should—and not just for the oyster porn.)

In another movie scene that comes to mind, the ama are treacherous. The hero dives into the water and encounters a group of them. They surround him and pull away his mask (ama dive without air). There is a strange gang-mentality/siren/dumb-playful group of seals sort of thing going on; they are not specifically trying to kill him but rather just messing with him. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what movie this was. A Bond movie? I know that Kissy Suzuki was supposed to be an ama but I didn’t think I had seen that one.

Japanese Ama, Photo by Fosco Maraini

[Photo by Fosco Maraini.]

Ama traditionally are free divers, almost exclusively women, who dove for seaweed and shellfish (like sea snails, abalone, lobster, oysters). Occasionally the oysters they dove for contained pearls but this was not their goal. Interestingly, it wasn’t until Mikimoto was trying to promote his pearls did he hire ama to “dive” for pearls as a propaganda stunt. Actual be-loinclothed women were a bit too shocking for his upper-crust clientèle, and yet, the image of naked young women wrapped in semi-sheer white fabric free diving into the cold tumultuous ocean to capture the very pearl you wear upon your breast was a compelling one. Mikimoto was a total fucking genius.

Japanese Ama Pearl Divers

[Japanese Ama as realized by Mikimoto. I have to say though, I’m liking the loincloth with the big-ass knife/pry-stick look better.]

Up until the middle 50s-60s, they dove only in loincloths. Then they wore the head-to-knee white outfits you see popularized by Mikimoto. Nowadays real working ama are interested in wearing whatever makes them most visible to boats, which usually is bright orange. Other than that, ama still dive for shellfish and seaweed as they have for 2000 years, with no air and no wetsuits. Obviously, diving with full scuba gear would allow them to stay down all day but they choose not to go this route. Depleting the shellfish population so rapidly would be harmful not only to the environment, but to their own livelihoods. They have struck a rare balance that has endured throughout the centuries and into modernity.

Harvesting Seaweed, 1956, by Iwase Yoshiyuki

[Harvesting Seaweed, 1956, by Iwase Yoshiyuki. For more amazing photos by this guy, go here.]

ama diving in loincloth

[Seriously, my ass is getting kicked just sitting here looking at this photo. Photo by Fosco Maraini.]

“Water temperatures on the Onjuku coast are bearable only between June and September. Large harvests were impossible to haul up in strong currents, so tides had to be favourable, limiting diving days to about 20 per year. Ama dive in three sessions a day, requiring extensive eating and warming at the fireside between runs. A good daily harvest required 60 to 80 dives of up to two minutes each, so ama had to develop and maintain substantial body fat to guard against hypothermia. With such rigors and risks, ama were paid enormous salaries, often making more in the short season than the village men made the whole year. In the late 1920s there were around 200 ama active in Onjuku and the seven harbours of the region (Kohaduki, Ohaduki, Futamata, Konado, Tajiri, Koura and Nagahama). By the late 1960s, they had disappeared.”

I took the quote from here—an interesting read—but I can’t actually find the original author. Here’s a brief and very good article about ama.

Around the Fire, 1931, by Iwase Yoshiyuki

[“Around the Fire,” 1931, by Iwase Yoshiyuki. Ama warm up between dives by a fire on the beach.]

I find it intriguing that free diving in cold water is something that most men simply cannot do; generally speaking, women’s bodies can handle cold water stress and mild hypothermia better than men’s. It was, and is, intense, dangerous, and backbreaking work, yet these women love to dive. They are real-life mermaids, every bit as mysterious and powerful and otherworldly as the mythical ones.

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