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!). The Amas have been diving for centuries using neither air tanks nor scuba gear. Amas dive to explore Japan’s seabed for shellfish, octopi, and pearls.
History starts here…!
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.
Since there are few or no official records about ama divers, their history and methods have led to the creation of local tales. In some of these tales, people call them “mermaids of the East.” According to a different legend, the ama-san were members of a larger community of sea women.
Later, they were divided into two separate groups. A great typhoon caused one group to become shipwrecked on the Noto Peninsula in Japan. They stayed there and developed into a community we know as ama-sans today.
The ama-san led a nomadic lifestyle along the coasts, their way of life. Some historians say that amas migrated throughout Japan. They settled on specific islands as “fisherwoman” and became a productive part of society.
Ama-san, because of her respected status in her community, presented offerings of abalone and other harvested goods to both shrines and emperors to show her appreciation and respect. She was entrusted with this crucial responsibility.
All Women… WHY???
Historically, all ama divers were females. It may be because…
In ancient Japan, women were superior divers. It is because of the distribution of their body fat. Women have an extra layer of fat that gives them better buoyancy and insulation than men. It makes women more fit for longer dives and brings more mussels.
Where and when to start training?
As the job is more associated with women. It is why divers have always passed on their customs and training from mother to daughter. These women are much admired and praised as some of the strongest women in Japan.
Ama divers remain fit despite their old age. Some of them can dive even in their 70s.
Before becoming an ama-san, one had to undergo rigorous training. The job requirements were quite demanding in terms of physical exertion.
The training of the girls born in ama families started at the age of 10. They learned these diving skills from their mothers and other elderly divers in the family.
In addition to diving, the divers also shared their skills and techniques at the “Amagoya” or “Ama Huts.”It is a place for the divers to rest and warm up while taking a break from diving.
As a tradition, Ama begins diving very early, taught by the elder Ama. There is a possibility that they might develop the ability to see underwater, like the Moken or sea gypsies of Thailand.
These sea gypsies are famous for having superior underwater vision. They acquire this ability as children with only one month’s training. Many Ama remain active divers well into their 70s and even 80s.
How do they Breathe?
The breathing technique is extraordinary about amas, making them stand out among the other divers. Older amas teach their young a unique breathing technique. Amas use this technique, and they can hold their breath for up to 2 minutes, all while diving vigorously and collecting food and mussels.
After breathing for 2 minutes, they release air in a long whistle-like sound. This technique is called Isobue. It lets amas release all the air in their lungs, allowing them to catch a fresh breath. Isobue saves their lungs from damage. Some legends say you can hear this whistle from a boat while at sea.
The Facts Behind Long Diving:
Now the question arises: how do amas hold their breath for so long? There is different research giving answers to this question.
According to research published in ScienceDirect in April 2018, ama divers develop the ability to contract their spleen. The contraction of the spleen results in the release of more red blood cells, which carry more oxygen in the body. Due to this technique, ama divers can stay longer in water. Another research study observed the same phenomenon in seals, which helps them dive more.
Still, more research is required to understand the role of genes responsible for the contraction and relaxation of vessels and body organs.
When people dive underwater, their bodies react to the diving reflex. Diving reflux means that their heart rate decreases and blood pressure rises.
The bodies of ama divers are well adapted to this diving reflux because they spend a lot of time underwater. It may be due to their arteries, which may be more flexible to handle the changes in the blood flow. It is similar to some diving animals like whales and seals, which have big arteries to handle this. Ama divers have low pulse pressure, which shows that their arteries are much more flexible.
In another study published in 2016, researchers compared three groups of physically active, physically inactive, and pearl divers. These groups had similar age, height, BMI, and medication status. Physically active and pearl diver groups had better blood pressure arterial health. They also had lower pulse pressure and better elasticity than physically inactive groups.
What’s their task?
Early Ama divers were honored with the task of fetching abalone. Abalone are marine snails whose flesh is considered a delicacy even today. Its beautiful shells are used for decoration and jewelry for emperors and shrines in Imperial Japan. Their profession was lucrative, with Ama often earning seven times a local fisherman’s income.
Evolution of Swimsuits:
As diving is a centuries-old tradition, early amas had no specialized tools and equipment for diving, not even swimsuits. They did their work naked. Yes, you heard it right!!!
Until 1893, Ama divers collected seafood in freezing waters without any protective equipment or wetsuits. Instead, they wore a traditional simple, white fundoshi (loincloth) and tenugui (bandannas).
In the 20th century, some Ama divers began adopting an all-white sheer diving uniform (some as late as the 1960s), which led to the evolution of the modern diving wetsuit. The Ama believed in preserving nature. They resisted using modern tools and neoprene wetsuits for a long time because Amas viewed them as damaging to ocean conservation efforts.
Before the 20th century, the pearls were only collected by hand. It was done by gathering a lot of pearl oysters or mussels from the ocean floor, which were then brought to the surface and opened. These mussels were searched for beads. Tons of the mussels were searched to get at least one good quality pearl.
In 1893, a Japanese entrepreneur called Kōkichi Mikimoto discovered a new method. He began producing cultured pearls and established a company on Mikimoto Pearl Island near Toba City. Under this establishment, 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 she can insert the pearl-producing nucleus and then carefully return the oysters to the seabed. Each diver had to hold their breath for up to two minutes underwater to complete this process.
Today, there is a thriving tourist industry at Mikimoto Pearl Island, where onlookers can witness the Ama in action.
Tradition is Disappearing in the Sand of Time:
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 2,000 divers today.
Ama divers are also witnessing firsthand the damaging effects of human activities on the marine environment (such as climate change, overfishing, and sea pollution), which impact the quantity and quality of their yields.
Another reason the ama culture is fading away is that there is very little to no demand for amas outside of a few small fishing villages. That is why the new generation is embracing modern career pursuits, leaving their centuries-old profession.
Although this beautiful culture of ama-sans is dying daily, and their number is decreasing quickly, modern media continues to celebrate festivals and events that enlighten this beautiful part of the Japanese heritage.
Mikimoto Pearl is nowadays an attractive destination to witness live demonstrations. A museum also displays the history, culture, and tools, which are almost 3000 years old.
However, people continue celebrating this beautiful part of Japanese culture through festivals, documentaries, and movies.
In 1958, an inspiring documentary called Ama Girls won the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary.
An Ama diver called Kissy Suzuki appears in Ian Fleming’s famous 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 beautiful Ama culture by checking out Ian McCann’s contemporary images of Ama divers, Iwase Yoshiwuki’s evocative vintage photos of Ama nudes, or watch one of many fascinating documentaries about Ama?
These fantastic women certainly inspire us!
Stay with Swimcore to learn more about swimming and facts.