Japan's Living Treasures

Are Japan’s living treasures, the legendary ama pearl divers, going down for the count? Roderick Eime peers into their hallowed realm.

She is the modern mermaid, the living apparition that so taunted sailors and mariners for centuries. But instead of scales and fins, her honey tanned skin is barely concealed by a saturated white cotton wrap, as sheer as transparent silk in the clear summer water. Her delicate face, disguised with an antique diving mask, is the first to go under, followed by a perfectly round bottom and then her feet, pointing skyward like a Bolshoi ballerina’s en pointe.

I’m watching this scene, not as I should, from the shore off Japan’s Toba City, but on a hazy television screen. A scratchy, forty year old documentary is screening in the little museum dedicated to the ama (or amasan, sea women), its walls decorated with nawa (rope), oke (shallow wooden tubs) and tegane (metal tools) for detaching awabi (shellfish). Toba is one of the few remaining locations around the Japanese coastline where the ama work on a regular basis, fishing in the traditional freediving method, for abalone, clams, crustaceans and seaweed.

The idyllic scene has transfixed me, much as the first western sailors must have been hundreds of years ago when they first caught sight of these athletic, uninhibited women diving in and out of the sea as if they were born to it. Actually they were. The ama begin diving in their mid-teens and continue well into their forties and fifties, often with their daughters by their side.

In 1954, when the young women were still entering this arduous yet honorable tradition, the noted Japanese scholar and ethnographer, Professor Kunio Yanagita, documented 24 sites around Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu where the ama still practised their traditional skills. But rather than as a field study for academia, it was popular culture and modern mythology where the ama flourished. From the subtly erotic woodblock prints of the 18th Century master, Utamaro Kitagawa, to the voyeuristic “documentaries” and B-movies of the 1950s and ‘60s, the romanticised ama became the pin-up girls of their time. Sassy, tanned, confident and trim, they monopolised the imagination of filmmakers, novelists and storytellers.

James Bond fell for one, Kissy Suzuki, in You Only Live Twice, while celebrated novelist, Yukio Mishima, penned Shiosai (The Sound of Waves), a classic romantic love story filmed no fewer than five times since it was first published in 1956. The formulaic ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl’ story is peppered with racy passages that capture the robust sensuality of the ama in their natural environment.

“Laughing boisterously, all the divers were thrusting out their chests, boastfully exhibiting their breasts. …. Everybody laughed. They were arguing who had the best shaped breasts.”

Master Japanese photographer, Yoshiyuki Iwase, produced some of the most stunning and evocative portraits of the ama during his lifetime, garnering numerous international awards in the process.

Harvesting Seaweed, Yoshiyuki Iwase, 1956 (Winner of the Prime Minister Prize Japan Photo Exposition, 1957)

But enough of this nostalgia and daydreaming, it’s time to meet some real ama.

The little hut, barely more than a picnic shelter, is perched against the sea wall. Reiko and Tazue are waiting to welcome us, the fire already raging and the teapot steaming. Laid out before us is a selection of fresh shellfish, the little animals still squirming in their shells and unaware of their fate. Reiko approaches and bows courteously in the age-old Japanese fashion. We reciprocate and are ushered inside with broad smiles and sweeping arms. Both girls are dressed in traditional après dive attire, with trademark headwear, cotton tunic and skirt. I’m notoriously clumsy at guessing ages, but Reiko quickly volunteers; she’s 77 and Tazue is a spritely 74. Yes, both are still diving.

Our ama experience in the little shack is warm and convivial and a popular tourist stop. We are fed clutches of shellfish straight from the fire, juice still bubbling inside the shells. Clams and abalone are delicious, while the turban shells are definitely an acquired taste. Tough and smoky, they take a bit of work, but Reiko is delighted when I accept a second.

“The big abalone are the real prize,“ Reiko tells me, “they earn us the best money.”

Women divers can earn over a million yen (AUD12,000) in a three month season, so it has traditionally been an attractive vocation for women who would otherwise be working in fields or factories. But today’s youngsters are not following their mothers.

“My daughter doesn’t like the cold,“ laments Reiko who will be the last ama in four generations of her family.

After a belly full of mixed crustaceans, we visit another hut, just in time to sit with the girls after a morning in the surf plucking mollusks. Wrapped in fleecy tops and trousers, they are typically cheerful but clearly glad to be in front of the fire as the diving season draws to a close. The interior is authentic ama with marine knick-knacks and modest personal effects arranged randomly about the floor and walls. There’s a little shrine on a shelf where they pray each morning for a safe and bountiful dive.

Ama face numerous hazards as part of their work, such as bites from unfriendly creatures, underwater entanglement and snags. Curiously, traditional diving dangers like the bends, hypothermia and ear damage don’t feature on their list. Women apparently have a greater tolerance to cold thanks to evenly distributed body fat and generally make better divers.

The true glamour divers, the prima donnas of the deep, are the pearl divers. Since the advent of cultured pearls, diving is almost a lost art. ‘Almost’, because at the Mikimoto Pearl Museum in Toba, there are daily diving displays for visitors. The girls are dressed in the white cotton smock that is the ama uniform and plunge for shells while we crane to see what’s going on. They disappear for a tantalising minute and re-emerge to the tune of an isobue (whistle) clutching a trophy shell, gleefully displaying it to the gathered onlookers. I can’t help thinking an underwater window would really complete the picture. Inside the museum is a mouth-watering display of an entirely different kind. Bring your credit card.

Sadly the era of the ama is rapidly drawing to a close. The average age of today’s diver is well over 50, and the alluring fundoshi (tied bikini bottom) and sheer blouse has given way to the more practical, amorphous long-sleeve wetsuit and scuba mask. The ladies still dive without any sort of breathing apparatus and command premium prices for their hand-picked produce, but for how much longer?

I lament that, apart from the choreographed demonstration at Mr Mikomoto’s giftshop, there are only museums and ad hoc visits to see the few remaining genuine ama in action. It needs some enterprising operator to deliver today’s experiential traveller a truly immersive experience – pun intended.

For now, it’s left to Reiko and Tazue to channel past ama and to look into their soft eyes is to see a hundred years of life under the waves mixed with the knowledge that their tide is going out forever.


The author wishes to express his thanks to Ms Rebecca Honda, then media relations manager for Japan National Tourist Office in Sydney for her invaluable assistance and personal time spent assisting the writer with this article.

Japan's Living Treasures

Roderick Eime

Riverwood, Australia

  • Artist

Artist's Description

The mythical women divers (amasan) are real. A centuries-old tradition of free-diving for shellfish and pearls is fading fast as new recruits dwindle. Romanticised in literature and art, the ama are living folklore.

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