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The breathtaking past and the uncertain future of Japan’s ama divers

Katie Gatens
01 November 2016

Katie Gatens reports on a 2,000-year-old tradition that’s in danger of being washed away by the tides

At a sleepy fishing village in rural Japan, a jagged coastline claws at the sea. Bays studded with oyster rafts bob gently with the tide. Boats with rusting hulls and scratched paintwork sit lopsided on the seashore. Faded fluorescent nets and buoys dot streets of wooden houses with hanging lanterns, further evidence of the area’s history of seafaring. This is the village of Osatsu. About three hours from Osaka, it’s remote – and possibly not the first place you’d expect to find some of the world’s toughest female divers. 

But Osatsu is home to 800 of Japan’s 2,000 ama (translation: ‘women of the sea’) who dive every day, year-round, in search of shellfish to sell at local markets. Armed with a mask, wetsuit, net and hook, they use no breathing equipment. And they’re almost all over the age of 60.

The ama dive to depths of around 65 feet, holding their breath for up to two minutes, as many as 70 times a day. By comparison, arguably the world’s greatest freediver, the late Russian Natalia Molchanova, could reportedly hold her breath for nine minutes and dive to depths of more than 328 feet – but only as a one-off. Ama scholar, professor Dolores Martinez of SOAS University, tells me that various studies were conducted on the Japanese women in the 1960s. ‘It was thought that these women could be a different race, such was their ability to withstand the cold and hold their breath for long periods of time,’ she explains. ‘But as soon as they started wearing wetsuits and diving for shorter periods their tolerance decreased and scholars lost interest.’

The women have always been an anomaly in a country with a distinct gender division, but the ama have kept this punishing tradition alive for more than 2,000 years. The profession is easy to romanticise, from the 18th-century Japanese paintings depicting ama with flowing black hair battling with oversized sea squid, through to risqué black-and-white images from the 1960s showing naked women diving for pearls – these formed the inspiration for Kissy Suzuki in the 1967 James Bond film, You Only Live Twice

But the ama divers’ traditional way of life is slowly being washed away with the tides. In 1956 there were 17,000, but today just 2,000 of the women remain. With an average age of 65, this may be the last generation. 

In May this year, global leaders descended on the emerald islands of the Japanese region of Ise-Shima for the G7 summit. While there, they were treated to an ama display as part of a campaign to get the divers on to the Unesco List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, with the aim of boosting tourism to the region.

Back in Osatsu, there’s a rough smell of the ocean: salt and seaweed mingling with the sticky sweet cedar tree sap of nearby Ise-Shima National Park. Chizuko Nakamura, 63, talcs her faded wetsuit and throws her battered fins and mask on to the small fishing boat in the harbour. Her face is etched with the lines of a life at sea, but there’s still playfulness and youth in her movements; her eyes twinkle as she throws her head back in laughter. Crabs sidestep-shuffle under fishing nets and butterflies as large as birds follow us along the coastal path as we make our way along a bouncing jetty. Chizuko directs me to a bench in a seesawing boat while she helps her husband, 68-year-old Tsuyoshi, to cast off from shore, before she settles on the bow of the boat. 

As we head into open water, Chizuko tells me how the ama sell their catch at local markets and how it can bring in big money. ‘One abalone shell sells for around 3,000 yen [£20],’ Chizuko explains of the meaty sea snails. ‘It varies depending on the season, but the most I’ve ever made from a month of diving out of season, in winter, is around 1.3 million yen [almost £10,000]’. I ask Tsuyoshi, standing tall in full-length, sky-blue waders and eager to get on with other fishing work, why he doesn’t dive. A raucous laugh erupts from both husband and wife – finding the notion of a man in this role hilarious. ‘Naturally, I’m preoccupied with other fishing jobs,’ he starts, before Chizuko leaps to his defence. ‘Diving is very much a woman’s job – he does much harder work than me,’ she counters. She explains how women are said to be better for the job because they have a more even distribution of fat on their bodies – the divers didn’t adopt wetsuits until the 1960s. 

Like all ama, Chizuko’s diving hours are restricted to an hour-and-a-half a day to protect the diminishing numbers of abalone, caused by warmer sea temperatures. The ama are committed to sustainable fishing – it takes the abalone around four years to grow to a length of four inches (10cm) – any smaller and they have to be thrown back into the sea. ‘I wish that I could dive for longer, it’s getting harder to earn money,’ Chizuko says. ‘I used to dive all day but now I have to work on a rice field to earn a living.’

Diving may be Chizuko’s preferred means of getting by but Tsuyoshi says the dangers are clear. ‘Once, when Chizuko was diving, the rope that held the weight got wrapped around her feet and fins, holding her down.’ Chizuko explains that their working relationship marks them out as unusual. ‘There are fewer people diving in couples now, where the husband controls the weight and the woman dives,’ she explains. ‘In this village there are only three or four couples still working in an area of more than 100 female solo divers. When one partner dies they can’t do it any more.’

Traditionally, women born into fishing villages became ama, like the generations of women before them, but that’s no longer the case. ‘My mother and grandmother were ama, but our society is more flexible now,’ Chizuko says. ‘When I was younger, there was a lot of pressure on me. I didn’t want the same pressure for my daughter. She went to university and is married now. She doesn’t come back here. It’s a better life for her.’ But the tides could be about to change once more. In 2013, Amachan, a TV series about a teenage girl who came from Tokyo to a small fishing village to become a diver, was a phenomenal success, introducing a new generation to ama culture. Chizuko tells me proudly that two girls have recently come from Tokyo to Mie Prefecture to dive. The community has high hopes that they will continue the tradition. 

Chizuko introduces me to an 87-year-old ex-ama, Reiko Nomura, outside her restaurant. Dressed in the traditional costume of a white tunic and headscarf and barely five feet tall, she commands the attention of everyone around her. She’s an entrepreneur, spokeswoman and local celebrity. She hops up into the driver’s seat of her minivan, which is almost comically oversized for her tiny frame, and we’re on the move along the bumpy road to Ishigami Shrine, a Shinto place of worship said to protect the divers, where the women pray on the first of every month.

While driving, Reiko explains that she only recently gave up her life in the water. ‘My restaurant business became too successful. I can earn more running a restaurant than as a diver,’ she tells me. The restaurant in question is a hut right by the sea, staffed by female divers who serve their catch of the day to tourists eager for a taste of ama culture. Lunch bubbles away on a grill over an open hearth – meaty abalone still in their iridescent shells; sea snails fresh with the taste of the salty water and hand-picked clams being prised open by the heat. 

I ask Reiko if she misses diving. She looks out at the harbour and squints her eyes at the sunlight bouncing on the water’s surface. ‘Oh yes,’ she replies. ‘It’s an instinct. Each year, when the weather starts getting warmer, my body yearns for the sea.’ 

Some hours later, I meet with Chizuko again and this time I join her in the sea. We dive about a mile from land; the wind whips spray up into my eyes and the current pushes me further from the boat. I flounder on the surface as, almost 35 feet below me, Chizuko, nearly three times my age, holds her breath and scours the seabed. She bursts through the surface with a gasp and the sound of her laboured isobue whistle bouncing across the ocean – a breathing technique the ama use to rapidly inhale and exhale after holding their breath for so long. Her catch is hauled overboard at the feet of Tsuyoshi, who – as always – controls the weights that plunge her to the sea floor. After another breath, and with a sure-fire confidence built up through repeating this action thousands of times, Chizuko disappears once again into the dark infinite silence of the sea. 

Afterwards, she lends me a strong arm and hauls me back into the boat. Divers often talk about a sense of serenity underwater but, when I ask Chizuko how it makes her feel, she pauses before replying: ‘It’s not a feeling of fun or pleasure, but a sense of duty. Once I spot something under the water I feel relieved. It’s more a feeling of ambition and determination.’