A group of Japanese grannies emerged from a boat returning to shore. Clad in black wet suits and bubbling with energy, they are part of a dwindling community of ama — free-diving fisherwomen.
As they compared the hauls of shellfish they have gathered, the women — who range from 60 to 80 years old — could be mistaken for teenagers underneath the water, gliding gracefully in the dark depths of the Pacific.
“I really feel like I am a mermaid among the fish, it’s a fantastic sensation,” said a beaming Hideko Koguchi, who works as an ama in the coastal town of Toba.
Back on shore, she knelt and counted the turban shells — a type of sea snail — gathered by the group.
Dressed in her full ama outfit — a mask that covers her eyes and nose, flippers and a black wet suit that replaced a white version worn until the 1960s — Koguchi sheds the weight of her years.
She has been an ama for three decades and proudly said that she hopes to be diving “for another 20 years.”
During the diving season, which lasts for 10 months each year, the local fishing association scrutinizes weather forecasts and information on marine stocks each day, before issuing a call for the women from loudspeakers.
Each ama — which means “woman of the sea” — has only rudimentary equipment: a buoyant ring to signal her presence at the surface while she dives and a net to hold her haul.
Out at sea, the women set up their rings and then dipped beneath the surface, sometimes holding their breath for more than a minute. They tirelessly resurfaced and dived over and over, dozens of times per session.
Only 2,000 ama are left in Japan, down from more than 12,000 in the 1930s, records kept by a marine museum in Toba showed.
The profession still exists in South Korea, where the divers are known as haenyo, but their numbers are also shrinking.
Historical artifacts suggest that the tradition in Japan dates back “at least 3,000 years,” said Shuzo Kogure, an ama specialist and researcher at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology.
While the profession has never been restricted to women, it is the ama who have attracted the most attention.
Old photographs and postcards depict the divers fishing topless, a practice that ended in the 20th century, but remains associated with the ama and the idea of them as “exotic objects of fantasy,” Kogure said.
However, cliches aside, the women have long worked hard to feed their families in isolated rural regions where other types of jobs were limited.
“In the old days, young women would become ama when they left middle school,” like a rite of passage, local fishing cooperative director Sakichi Okuda said.
Like Koguchi and her elder sister, who dive together, they usually learned the basics from a relative at a young age.
The sisters are part of an ama lineage that stretches back through their mother and grandmother, but their skills will not be passed on to the next generation — their children have left for the city in search of more stable jobs.
“It is no longer viable to take on this job,” Okuda said.
To preserve the culture, “we have to answer the question of how we can increase the revenue of these divers,” Okuda said.
The women, some of whom even walk with their backs bent over with age, acknowledged that the work is poorly paid and dangerous.
“Of course I would love the kids to take over, but I know that being an ama diver is a difficult job and I don’t recommend it, even to my own children,” said Michiko Hashimoto, Koguchi’s sister.
She sat warming herself up around a fire in a hut where the women gather after fishing to catch up and recharge.
“If we want to protect and transmit the values of the ama, their way of life, we have to open the door to strangers, beyond the tradition of passing things through the family,” Kogure said.
“If we can accept that change, then the future need not be so dark,” Kogure said, adding that the government and local authorities should offer financial support to the divers.
In the neighboring village of Osatsu, young recruits were eagerly welcomed.
Ayami Nagata, a 39-year-old mother of five, began her ama training last year, following in the footsteps of her grandmother.
“I don’t know how to swim, but I am practicing in shallow areas to start with,” she said.
She is not joining the profession for the money: each catch goes for only about ￥10,000 (US$88.54).
Nagata said that for her, it is about escape: “These moments of freedom far from the family.”
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