Japan’s “Ama”

By Staff Writer
July 28, 2023
Ama, meaning “women of the ocean” in Japanese, are female freedivers who descend to depths of up to 25 meters without the aid of any modern scuba equipment or fishing tools to collect seafood, such as shellfish, abalone, and seaweed as well as pearls for a living. This practice dates back as far as 2,000 years and is deeply rooted in the Ise Shima peninsula in southern Mie Prefecture.

Ama can hold their breath for long periods of time thanks to hyperventilation, a breathing technique where divers take a final deep breath and plunge into the sea. This technique has been passed down for generations from elder to younger ama, allowing them to avoid lung damage. Ama were believed to be able to endure extremely cold water temperatures longer than men due to women’s higher levels of subcutaneous fat. They would usually start their training as early as 12 years old and remain active well into their 70s and 80s.
Ama divers wearing their traditional
Legend says that Yamatohime-no-mikoto, an ancient Japanese royal who enshrined the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami at Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture, visited the Toba area and was fascinated by the taste of abalone offered by an ama called Oben. Abalone has been presented as offerings to deities at Shinto shrines, such as Ise Jingu.

Traditionally, ama used to wear a fundoshi (loincloth) or a garment wrapped around their hips and a headscarf, but after the pearl industry began to flourish and with the emergence of foreign customers, they started wearing full-body white costumes called “isogi”. This protected them from the cold and, according to belief, it warded off hungry sharks. With the invention of wetsuits in the 1950s, these were adopted by ama.

Today, ama culture is often linked to Mikimoto cultured pearls produced in Mikimoto Pearl Island near the city of Toba in Mie Prefecture. While ama once played an essential role in their harvest and collection, cultivation techniques have since developed, and ama divers are no longer required. The success of the pearl cultivation business, however, is attributed to ama’s contribution.
White and cream cultured pearls
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