Faint whistles drift over the dark waters, blending into the crashing of the waves, giving an almost eerie feel to my surroundings. The sound brings to mind the climactic scenes of the blockbuster Titanic, when Kate Winslet sounds her whistle with barely any breath left, in the fervent hope of being rescued by the lifeboat that’s drifting away from her.
I relax a bit when I see one of the Ama (women of the sea) resurface from beneath the waves with deft movements, then disappear into the watery abyss again in a perfect, vertical dive. The whistling sound, known as isobue, results from a special technique that the Ama employ to adjust their breathing after rapid pressure change underwater. This technique, which is usually accompanied by a slow exhale, prevents damage to their respiratory system. As much as I’m relieved, it turns out that I wasn’t too far off with the Titanic comparison, as this ‘sea whistle’ by Amas also serves to inform each other of their location if the waves get too high.
WOMEN OF THE SEA
I’m on Mikimoto Pearl Island in the Ise-Shima region within the Mie prefecture, embarking on one of my most exciting assignments yet: meeting the Ama, also popularly known as the Mermaids of Japan. My destination: Osatu village, where the Hachiman hut – an Ama hut that is open to visitors – is located.
Ama diving, a heritage passed down through the generations, dates back more than 3,000 years, and is still very much alive in this area. It was first recorded as early as AD750 in the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry, the Man’yoshu. In the old days, a girl’s marriageability was assessed according to her Ama diving prowess. Only if a girl was a skillful Ama was she regarded as ready to be married. Today, Amas are known as pearl-divers, but they originally dived simply for food such as shellfish, octopus and seaweed, and pearl-laden oysters were only a bonus find whenever they came across them on the seabed.
Now, there are only 2,000 Amas left in Japan, and most of them reside in the Ise-Shima region. Modern-day technology may be vastly more efficient when it comes to the labours of fishing, but it cannot rival Ama diving, which maintains a balanced ecosystem with its natural underwater food-sourcing customs, ultimately preventing overfishing.
I make my way to the Hachiman hut in Osatu village in brutal weather conditions. The rain seems to fall almost horizontally in the strong wind but finally, I reach the safety of the Ama hut. I receive a friendly welcome from three Amas, and quickly settle inside the hut where I relish the heat from the fire that warms the tiny space. The Amas are in the midst of preparing a meal of oysters and other seasonal shellfish on a charcoal grill. This is the very hut the women use to rest, as they shelter from the weather, cook their meals and change their clothes, and visitors are welcome here to experience the Ama way of life.
In a way I’m grateful for the grim weather, as the three Amas and I huddle around the fire, the wind howling outside, as the rain pours down in torrents. It’s the perfect setting for storytelling, and I soon learn all about this amazing diving tradition.
I have so many questions to ask my hosts. How long can they hold their breath underwater? How do they find what they are looking for in such a short time, especially without lighting equipment? Are they in much danger while they work? I could go on.
In the traditional sense, femininity may often be associated with vulnerability, but here are Amas, incredibly brave women, exposed to the most hostile conditions as they dive deep into the dark, freezing, open waters of the Gulf of Ise, with the barest of equipment and diving gear.
Their diving gear is simple; it consists of a small, colourful buoy, on which the divers rest when they return to the surface, a pair of goggles and a sharp metal hook with a handle that not only helps them spear their catch for the day, but also aids them in moving rocks on the seabed. One of the older women, 81-year-old Reiko Nomura, reveals that they wear white suits to prevent shark attacks (yes, there are sharks around these parts of Japan) because sharks think that white objects are bigger than them. Accidents rarely happen, but if they do, mishaps usually involve the rope the divers tie around their waist, which can get lodged between rocks or tangled in seaweed, preventing them from resurfacing. Nowadays, Amas also use a harness that can be unhooked in times of emergency but when underwater, even the smallest task can prove monumental.
Aside from such minor ‘upgrades’, Ama diving has evolved little through the ages; Amas even started to wear goggles only in the last century. Prior to that, they dived with their eyes open underwater, often in darkness. But they know the seabed well and many of them can dive up to 20m deep, holding their breath an entire two minutes!
These days, for the sake of protecting the underwater environment, Amas only work for an hour and a half a day, compared to their predecessors who dived four hours daily. Ama diving is also seasonal work, and they have two major breaks each year: from January to the beginning of March, which is when the seaweed season starts; and from mid-September to early November, as the sea-cucumber season begins.
ALL IN A DAY’S WORK
Because they are so familiar with the waters and the seabed, they know just where to go to find what they are looking for. This takes years of practice. The deeper they go, the stronger the pressure, and they must descend slowly to safely reach the seabed. Once on their feet again, they move about by holding on to rocks with a simple, long metal hook, the same tool that has been used by Amas for centuries.
And in cold weather, low water temperatures make the Ama’s task even harder. These courageous divers don’t follow hard and fast rules when it comes to diving in low temperatures. Their only real guide is that when the water gets extremely cold, it gets painful for them to remain submerged and it becomes harder to work – this is where Amas draw the line.
Interestingly, their female biological makeup helps the Ama to endure the frigid conditions underwater, as women naturally have more body fat than men, making them better suited to withstand cold conditions. This is also why Ama diving is primarily a women-only occupation. Reiko agrees that men are much weaker at dealing with cold conditions, especially in water. She relates an incident when her husband dived with her, and he was only able to tolerate the freezing water for five minutes, while she worked a total of four hours every day! Reiko also tells me how she used to dive while she was pregnant, and was working up to the day before her son was born. “I officially proved that it’s fine to dive one day before giving birth!” laughs Reiko.
THE NAKED TRUTH
In the past, Amas only wore the fundoshi, or loincloth, when diving. Watch any old footage on YouTube, and you’ll notice this garment. I have to ask my Ama hosts about this, and as politely as I can, I broach the subject of their old tradition of diving topless. To my relief, they burst into laughter, and Reiko is particularly amused by my question.
When she was 19, she says, there was an occasion when her group of 10 Ama divers was working in rainy weather. As they would be unable to dry off properly later, their leader instructed them to dive completely naked. By the time they made a few dives and eventually came up to the surface with their catch, they noticed a large group of men standing on the shore watching them!
Amas stopped diving bare-skinned about 80 years ago when the Ise-Shima region became more developed, and their traditional ‘dive outfit’ (or lack of one) began attracting unwanted attention. However, they insist that the main reason they adopted the white dive suits was to keep sharks away. But as recently as the 1960s, Amas could still be seen diving in only a loincloth.
The following day, thankfully, the weather is better, and I journey out to sea with Amas to watch them in action. It’s early April, and sakura (cherry blossom) season is underway. The air is crisp and chilly. The Amas are silent and focused as we walk to the boat along the pink, cherry blossomed-fringed shore.
In the middle of the tiny boat, there’s a black, old-fashioned, hot stove to keep the divers warm. As we approach the designated dive spot about 10m from the shore, the engine is turned off, while the Amas get ready. The women pour cold water under their outer white suits (they wear wet suits underneath) to adjust their body temperature to the frigid waters. Then, they throw a wooden basket overboard, and climb over the ledge backwards. With a sudden splash, they disappear beneath the waves. For what seems to be ages, I don’t see them. Then I hear the isobue, and suddenly they reappear alongside the boat, empty their findings in the basket and submerge again. They do this repeatedly five or six times, and then climb back into the boat for a short break, before resuming their dive. Tourists watch from the safety of the shore, but being out there on the water with the Amas, observing them closely from my privileged perch, it strikes me that these brave divers risk their lives with each dive.
PEARLS OF HERITAGE
Although Amas are famous for pearl-diving, their occupation traditionally revolved around finding food, and I’m curious how things changed. It seems that when Kokichi Mikimoto, the founder of the Mikimoto Pearl Company, set up his operations here in 1893, he enlisted the Amas to help culture pearls. The most important part of pearl farming is the difficult process of placing the cultured pearl-producing nucleus inside the oyster; as the oyster counteracts the irritation of being implanted with a foreign substance, it produces nacre, a shiny layer that coats the nucleus, forming the pearl. Once the delicate work of implanting the nucleus is done, Amas return the oysters to a safe location on the seabed where they are protected from the tides.
Although products of the Mikimoto Pearl Company can now be found in every high-end shopping mall and Ama diving enjoys more exposure than ever, the tradition itself is fading. As modernisation brings promising prospects to women in present-day Ise, the younger generation is losing interest in this ancient tradition, resulting in a shortage of successors.
However, there are still a handful of adventurous women who choose this remarkable calling. In a bid to keep the old ways alive, Amas often visit schools to ‘recruit’ girls by introducing them to their age-old diving tradition. Although some show a keen interest, many think it highly unlikely that Ama diving will be a sought-after occupation for the women of tomorrow.
Nevertheless, there are efforts underway to keep the spirit of the tradition alive. The Mie prefectural government has already approached the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation with a recommendation to include Ama diving in its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Having witnessed the courage and fortitude of the Ama divers up close, I am confident that they will not allow the ravages of time to stand in their way.
As with all ancient customs, Ama diving is governed by various beliefs. One of the interesting customs held to this day is to never dive on the seventh and 17th of the month. This is because history has proven that dives on these dates tend to be accident-prone. Another belief that has its roots in popular folklore is that there exists a sea monster that drags divers into the depths, to their death. To protect themselves from this sea monster, Amas carry amulets with the symbol of a five-pointed star called seman that is believed to protect them. According to legend, the seman symbolises life’s continuity, providing Amas the reassurance that they will always return safely from the sea, from a mission that carries danger with every dive. The seman is said to signify a safe return, as the final stroke of the star, which is drawn with a single unbroken line, returns to its point of origin. Amas wear the seman on their white suits, and display it on their hoods. The star can also be seen on houses and shrines in Ise-Shima.
GEMS OF ISE-SHIMA
The Ise-Shima region, which is well known for its quality cultured pearls, also offers myriad attractions that draw tourists here by the droves.
- Representing the union of man and woman in marriage, Meoto Iwa (known as the ‘Married Couple Rocks’) are two rocks that jut out of Futami Sea, and this attraction is a popular destination, especially among young couples. The two rocks, considered sacred according to ancient Shinto tradition, are joined by a shimenawa (hemp or rice straw rope used for ritual purification), which weighs over a tonne! The shimenawa is replaced three times each year in a religious ceremony.
- The Shinmei Shrine in Osatsu village is an absolute must-visit. It is closely linked with Ama diving, as the Tamayori-Hime deity enshrined here is worshipped by the Ama as their guardian. It is also believed that this deity grants one wish to every woman who prays at the shrine, making it a popular draw for women.
- When it comes to all things pearly, the Mikimoto Museum is hard to beat. It showcases the history of pearls and pearl farming by Kokichi Mikimoto. The museum, which offers a breathtaking view of Toba Bay, also houses a great number of artifacts in relation to the pearl industry, with stunning pearl ornaments on display. A particular highlight here is the Ama diving demonstration by the brave women of the sea, which provides visitors the rare opportunity to meet the Amas in person.
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