From mermaids to mermen: Japan’s ama divers evolve with the times

Ama diver Yushi Ikeda, 37, on his boat. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

SHIMA/TOBA, MIE – Growing up by the sea, Mr Yushi Ikeda and Mr Toyofumi Hamagiwa followed in the footsteps of their mothers to become ama free divers.

“My mother was an ama, and she asked if I was keen to join her,” says 37-year-old Mr Ikeda, who has nearly 20 years of experience diving in his home town in coastal Shima city.

“I graduated from junior high and had nowhere to go. I could not join the military, I could not go to high school. I left home to do odd jobs but grew sick of working.”

His friend, Mr Hamagiwa, 43, has a similar down-and-out story: He admits to having had a pachinko gambling addiction and a lack of purpose in life, when his mother threw him a lifeline 18 years ago that he took to like a fish to water.

Mr Ikeda works with his wife Mana, 25, and family friend Noriko Minami, 68, while Mr Hamagiwa works with his wife Shiori, 33, and mother Kyoko, 70, going out to sea in the spring and summer months for six days a week if conditions are good. While hardly a lucrative or stable career, they make enough to support themselves.

The vast majority of the 2,000 or so ama across the Japanese archipelago today are women, although the term “ama” may refer to sea people (海人), sea women (海女) or sea men (海士), depending on how it is written.

SPH Brightcove Video
Meet the men ama divers of Shima in Japan's Mie prefecture. Ama traditions may date back as far as 2,000 years, and free diving has long been known as a women-only profession in Japan. ST's Walter Sim learns more about a different breed of ama.

Ama dive without oxygen tanks – relying on a single breath as they swim to 10m underwater to harvest abalone, turban shells and seaweed from the seabed.

Despite ama’s women-only reputation, references to male divers predate female ones in official records, in year 720 versus 759. Experts believe men fell out of this line of work as they started seeking larger catches by going farther out to sea and using techniques like netting, and also possibly because they have lower tolerance for the cold, deep waters. But in the 1960s, rubber wetsuits and flippers replaced the original white cloth garments worn by women divers.

“This offered better insulation, thus paving the way for male divers with more muscle and less fat tissue and thus lower cold endurance,” says Dr Akira Tsukamoto from Mie University, who researches the ama and has published a book on them.

In Toba, home to the highest population of ama, the number of male divers has crept up from 145 in 2018, to 156 in 2021. This cushioned a dip in female ama numbers from 430 to 421.

Ama diver Yushi Ikeda, 37, holds onto a float attached to a net in which the catch of the day goes. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

Birth of a trade

Small ama communities exist across Japan, and half of Japan’s ama are believed to be based in Shima and Toba in Mie prefecture. Each settlement is insular and works by its own rules.

Tools found in archaeological excavations indicate that ama have existed across Japan since at least 3,000 years ago. 

The entrance to the Ise Shrine, which is regarded as Japan’s most sacred site as it is dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Abalone catch by local ama divers are offered to the deities during regular festivals. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

Abalone caught by the ama has for millennia been offered for rituals at Mie’s Ise Shrine, Japan’s most sacred site that is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, from whom the imperial family is said to have descended.

Pearl oysters have historically been found in the Ise-Shima region, and ama are commonly described outside Japan – anachronistically – as “pearl divers”. However, harvesting of natural pearls is all but impossible these days, as the oysters vanished off Japan’s waters by the late 19th century due to overfishing.

An ama diver dives underwater in the open sea off Shima city in Mie prefecture. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

But Toba native Kokichi Mikimoto founded global luxury pearl jeweller Mikimoto in 1893, inventing the technique of manufacturing cultured pearls by inserting a pearl nucleus and a piece of mantle tissue into the shellfish. The molluscs are returned to the ocean after the process. Mikimoto employed the ama to harvest pearl oysters up till around 1960, when technology developed and the company began using oyster cultivation rafts, making the ama redundant, says Mr Noboru Shibahara, director of the Mikimoto Pearl Island museum.

The company, however, continues to celebrate its history with the ama with daily diving demonstrations at the museum.

A diving demonstration for visitors to Mikimoto Pearl Island, a museum facility run by luxury pearl jeweller Mikimoto. The ama wear their traditional white garments and use baskets to hold the catch. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

A dying heritage evolves

Each fishing settlement has its own rules. The ama generally dive between April and September, on days when the sea is calm. Many dive twice a day – once in the morning and once in the afternoon – and each expedition takes between 60 and 90 minutes.

Ama diving can be lucrative, but only if the volume of the catch is good, says Dr Tsukamoto, noting that kuroawabi or black abalone can fetch up to 15,000 yen (S$150) per kg. Each weighs about 250g. But incomes are unstable, and many divers are increasingly supplementing their incomes with other work. Some have opened restaurants modelled after the amagoya hut where the ama relax after dives, or even ryokan inns.

The Ikedas and Hamagiwas supplement their ama income by catching seasonal seafood in the colder months like the ise-ebi spiny lobster, which retails for an average 8,822 yen per kg.

Ama divers may hold odd jobs to supplement their incomes from the sea. Here, seaweed is among the items being sold at an unmanned kiosk near the Shinmei Shrine in Osatsu, Mie prefecture. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

The trade is further under threat as Japan’s population ages and sea conditions change, possibly irreversibly.

Ama numbers have plunged from some 10,000 in the post-war years to a fifth of that number, as Japan’s economic rise led to youth shunning difficult and unstable jobs in favour of better prospects in the cities.

Reduced shellfish populations are another factor.

Dr Tsukamoto further points to a relaxation on fishing limits for larger fisheries that has led to a drastic reduction in kelp, the natural habitat for abalone. This is compounded by rising water temperatures.

Mrs Kyoko Hamagiwa, in Shima, says: “When I started out over 30 years ago, my net was filled to the point where I could not fill it with any more abalone. But today, we could not even get one abalone.” 

An ama diver swims in the open sea off the coast of Shima city in Mie prefecture. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

To combat these trends, neighbouring Toba has designated a “seabed restoration area”, where it plants seedlings to grow kelp for transplantation to its coasts. It is also using methods such as fish stocking to cultivate abalone before releasing them into the wild, says the city’s fisheries division chief Tomoki Sakakibara.

Still, ama families face uncertainty and are contemplating a future outside the trade.

Mrs Shiori Hamagiwa became an ama seven years ago after marrying into the family. 

“I gave it a shot, since this was what my husband and mother-in-law were doing,” she says, adding that she initially found the job rough and was “puking while diving”. But if yields continue to diminish, she would object to her two daughters, aged 10 and 12, becoming ama.

Mr Ikeda says he wants to continue diving for life.

“But even if there is the will, if I cannot provide for myself and my family, I cannot continue,” he says. “I want to do this until I die, but to be realistic, the question is when this will no longer be a feasible job.”

There is growing recognition that more should be done to resuscitate the trade, though this is concentrated in Mie prefecture. Dr Tsukamoto notes a stark difference in enthusiasm levels across Japan, particularly in areas where the ama population is insignificant.

Mr Yoshiaki Ikeda, 47, Shima city’s fisheries infrastructure chief, says: “The ama was so close to my heart – my grandmother was one – that I had not realised its cultural value. This is a heritage that ought to be preserved, but how to do this is honestly a question mark.”

Outsiders keen to become ama are viewed not only with distrust, but also as competition, given the dwindling sea resources. Newcomers also face hurdles in obtaining fishing permits due to objections from local fishery unions representing ageing ama.

Tokyo-born photographer Aiko Ono, 43, is a rare case of an ama without family ties, relocating to Toba in 2015 via a one-off campaign to recruit divers. “At first I was treated as an outsider, and it took me a year to build trust with the locals,” she told news portal Nippon.com.

Mr Ikeda, the fisheries chief, wonders: “It is not necessarily a good thing if there is explosive growth in ama today – how can they make a living? But at the same time, if things continue as they are, the ama may go extinct.”

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