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Discover the deep history of Japan’s real-life mermaids, the Ama divers

Have you heard of Ama divers? They are fearless female free divers who have braved dizzying ocean depths (as deep as 20m!) without air tanks or scuba gear for centuries, exploring Japan’s seabeds for shellfish, octopi and pearls. Some of the earliest mentions of Ama divers are found in the 8th-century Japanese poetry collection called the Man’yōshū. Some believe that the tradition goes back even further, over 5,000 years! Although these sea maidens – who swim over and slip under rocks, cut seaweed and grab shellfish all in the same breath – may sound like the stuff of legend, the tradition continues to this day. In ancient Japan, women were considered superior divers due to their ability to hold their breath and the distribution of their body fat, giving them better buoyancy and insulation. Ama traditionally begins diving as early as 12 years old, taught by elder Ama. It is possible that they develop the ability to see underwater similar to the Moken or sea gipsies of Thailand, who develop a superior underwater vision as children with only one month’s training.

Ama divers

Many Ama continues to be active divers well into their 70s and even 80s. Ama divers are said to live longer due to their rigorous dive training, which includes some special breathing techniques such as releasing air in a long whistle after resurfacing from a dive (a noise called Isobue).

Early Ama divers were honoured with the task of fetching abalone (marine snails whose flesh is considered a delicacy even today, and whose attractive shells are used for decoration and jewellery) for emperors and shrines in Imperial Japan. Their profession was a lucrative one, with Ama often earning seven times a local fisherman’s income.

Until 1893, Ama divers collected seafood in freezing waters without any protective equipment or wetsuits. Instead, they wore a simple tenugui (bandana) and fundoshi (loincloth), traditionally white in colour. In the 20th century, some Ama divers began to adopt an all-white sheer diving uniform (some as late as in the 1960s), and eventually a modern diving wetsuit. The Ama believe in preserving nature, and resisted the use of modern tools and neoprene wetsuits for a long time because they viewed them as potentially damaging to ocean conservation efforts.

Ama divers

In 1893, a Japanese entrepreneur called Kōkichi Mikimoto discovered and began producing cultured pearls, and established a company on Mikimoto Pearl Island near Toba city. It was under this establishment that Ama divers were professionally inducted into harvesting and culturing pearls – what they are best known for today. The Mikimoto Ama’s job was to collect oysters from the seabed so that the pearl-producing nucleus could be inserted, and then carefully return the oysters back to the seabed. To complete this process, each diver needed to hold her breath for up to two minutes at a time underwater. Today, there is a thriving tourist industry at Mikimoto Pearl Island, where onlookers can witness the Ama in action. 

Despite this tourism and efforts to keep the Ama’s glorious tradition alive, modern professions and opportunities for women have made the number of Ama dip to its lowest figure of around just 2,000 divers today. Ama divers are also witnessing firsthand the damaging effects of human activities on the marine environment (such as climate change, over-fishing and sea pollution), which impact the quantity and quality of their yields.

Ama divers

However, people continue to celebrate this beautiful part of Japanese culture through festivals, documentaries and movies. In 1958, an inspiring documentary called Ama Girls won the Academy Award for the Best Short Documentary. An Ama diver called Kissy Suzuki appears in Ian Fleming’s popular 1964 James Bond spy novel You Only Live Twice. TV series like Amachan and the manga series Amanchu! also gained popularity among Japanese audiences.

Why not dive into the wonderful Ama culture by checking out Ian McCann’s contemporary images of Ama divers, or Iwase Yoshiwuki’s evocative vintage photos of Ama nudes, or watch one of many fascinating documentaries about Ama?

We are certainly inspired by these amazing women!

Did you learn something new in this post?

Let us know in the comments!

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