JAPAN: Traditions/ Customs (Amasan)

Japan has an extremely rich and unique culture that is worth exploring further and today I want to introduce you to an almost 2,000 year old tradition of the Ama (海女),Sea Women. These women are renowned for free-diving to depths of up to 100 feet in search of oysters, octopus, abalone, seaweed and pearls wearing nothing but a fundoshi (loincloth) and a pair of goggles traditionally. Although modern times have obliged the Ama to incorporate such things as scuba masks, fins and wet suits, these women continue to exhibit extraordinary physical feats in their ability to dive continually for up to four hours a day and do so until they reach a ripe old age, some until they reach their eighties!

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It is said that women made better divers than men because the thicker layer of fat in their bodies enabled them to endure the cold water during long periods of diving. Another reason is the self-supporting nature of the profession, allowing women to live independently and foster strong communities. Perhaps most surprisingly however, is the old age to which these women are able to keep diving. Most Ama are elderly women who have practiced the art for many years.  In modern Japan, there is a lack of young women to succeed their elders and this ancient practice of free-diving is dwindling. Numbers have dropped to just 1/8th of what they once were. In 1956 there were 17,611 Ama in Japan but as of 2010 only 2,174 remained.

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It is also important to note that this culture of female divers is not unique to Japan. Since 2007 Korea has been presenting its case to have the Haenyo divers of Jeju Island listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The Ama have been featured in the artwork of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Kuniyoshi in the 18th century and captured in the photographs of Yoshiyuki Iwase in modern times. Iwase was born in Onjuku, a fishing village on Pacific side of the Chiba peninsula, which encloses Tokyo Bay on the northeast. After graduating from Meiji University Law School in 1924, he took up his lifelong pursuits, heading the family sake distillery and documenting the receding traditions of coastal Japan.

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Although the scantily-clad, romanticized image of the Ama is a thing of the past, there’s still a rich history and culture that needs to be conveyed. Today, Mikimoto Pearl, who once used the Ama to harvest its pearls, helps preserve that memory. Visitors to Mikimoto Pearl Island in Mie Prefecture can experience first-hand the thrill of watching the Ama dressed in white diving outfits plunge to the waters and emerge bearing the famous Akoya oysters from which Mikimoto’s pearls come from.

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