Japan's dying tradition of female pearl divers

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Ama Japanese female pearl divers
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Ama Japanese female pearl divers
Japan, Honshu, Toba, Traditional female pearl diver swimming in the water with wooden barrel for collecting oysters at the Mikimoto Pearl Farm in Mie Prefecture in Kansai Region. (Photo by: Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images)
Japan, Honshu, Toba, Traditional female pearl diver swimming in the water with wooden barrel for collecting oysters at the Mikimoto Pearl Farm in Mie Prefecture in Kansai Region. (Photo by: Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images)
JAPAN - CIRCA 1900: Mikimoto, Japan - Amas: divers for pearls, Island of Mikimoto. (Photo by Francois LE DIASCORN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
JAPAN - CIRCA 1900: Pearl Culture, in Japan - Mikimoto Island, pearl culture, the 'Amas' (Japanese divers) place the pearl oysters. (Photo by Francois LE DIASCORN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Ama with mask and in traditional white clothing, showing an abalone during a demonstration in Toba Bay, Mikimoto Pearl Island.Ama are Japanese divers, most of them are women, famous for pearl diving.Even in modern times,they never use diving apparatus.
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Pearl diver
High angle view of an Ama diver diving in the sea, Mikimoto Pearl Island, Toba, Mie Prefecture, Japan
Portrait of an Ama diver, Mikimoto Pearl Island, Toba, Mie Prefecture, Japan
TOBA, JAPAN - MAY 11: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Queen Elizabeth II and Duke of Edinburgh are seen off by female divers after inspecting a pearl factory during their visit to Japan on May 11, 1975 in Toba, Mie, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
Japan, Professions, pic: 1959, Japanese girl divers who collect oysters from the sea and river estuaries pictured at work, with the containers in which oysters which hold the cultured pearls are stored (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
A Japanese pearl diver places the steel cages in the still waters at the pearl farm in Japan, 1955. (Photo by Lionel Green/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Japan, Professions, pic: 1959, Japanese girl divers who collect oysters from the sea and river estuaries, working to collect the cultured pearls (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
circa 1955: Divers selling seashells to the passengers of passing ships frequent the waters of Muscat, formerly a centre of pearl fishing until the development of cultured pearls from Japan made their trade virtually redundant. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
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It may not be long before we cease to see Japan's traditional female free divers, known as Ama, in the flesh.

In Toba city, Ama forage for seafood like abalone, sea urchin and lobster, but their numbers are threatened by an aging population and climate change.

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Located on the Northeast Coast of the Shima Peninsula, the Toba region boasts the largest number of Amas in Japan at around 600 divers, with the oldest reaching 82-years-old.

According to the Director of the Toba Sea-Folk Museum, Yoshikata Ishihara, the term Ama, which translates to "sea woman", first appeared in the 18th century through evidence found in folklore and paintings.

Prior to the adoption of wet suits in the 1960s, these nimble mermaids wore only a white loincloth and goggles during their dives. They dive without the aid of oxygen tanks.​​​​​

Today, an Ama's kit can include a wetsuit, goggles, flippers, gloves, a chisel, a floatation device, a barrel or net to hold the catch and a white bonnet, which is said to make them more visible to fisherman and to scare off sharks.

Their white bonnets are also marked with customary talismans to ward off evil spirits from the sea: the Seiman — a star symbol — and the Doman — a latticed pattern — are placed side-by-side on various Ama tools for protection.

An Ama's dive can range from three to 20 meters, and each dive can last up to 50 seconds. The number of dive days per year can range from six to 70, factoring in when the sea is rough and abiding by regulations.

See modern-day Ama in action:

The Famous Ama Female Divers

50 years of diving

When Shigeyo Nakayama was 10-years-old she carried a wooden bucket down to the water with her siblings and pretended to be an Ama during playtime. ​​​​​

Currently, the 69-year-old is one of 110 active Ama divers from the Osatsu Area in Toba City.

In addition to diving, she supplements her income with a part-time job at a local hotel and has a plot of land that she farms. For more than 80 percent of Amas, a different source of income and a partner with a permanent job rounds out a household's finances.

An Ama's catch is usually hauled directly to the nearby market and sold. Although Ama means "woman" diver, men can do the job too.

Nakayama also works at an "Ama Goya" – an Ama hut - set up by the Osatsu Cultural Council, offering meal service to visitors with seafood they catch. Located by a fishing port, visitors are able to make lunch reservations and experience the cuisine inside the hut.

The menu touts charcoal grilled local seafood that is in season and prepared by a group of Amas in front of the patrons.

Fewer keen to be Ama

Nakayama's daughter has chosen not to be an Ama, despite the occupation traditionally being passed down through the maternal lineage.

As young people seek work in big cities, they leave behind an aging population, who are trying to preserve the Ama culture.

"At the peak, there were more than 6000 Ama divers in the Toba region, which has largely decreased now," said Ishihara, who has been studying Amas for more than 40 years.

According to the Toba Sea-Folk Museum, sea desertification and the drop in natural resources is threatening the Ama practice.

To protect against overfishing, restrictions have been set for specific areas. The Mie Prefecture Fishery Adjustment Regulations states that no abalone may be harvested from Sep. 15 through Dec. 31, since spawning begins in October.

In addition, abalone smaller than 10.6 cm in shell size is also prohibited from being caught. Abalone, an Ama's most profitable catch, takes 4 years to reach its legal size and can sell for up to $40 a pound.

Other restrictions set to protect against over culling of Toba City's natural resources include rules on which days an Ama can dive, the number of outings per day, the length of each dive and so on.

Sisterhood for life

Despite these policies being set by the city, they are self-governed. Ishihara said Amas are a tight knit community guided by altruism.

The hut where Amas rest, warm up and socialize after dives, typically holds around five people and is heated by a wood fuelled fire.

When a hut needs repair, Amas of the group will pitch in for renovations. The Ama sisterhood is difficult to infiltrate and despite a dearth of young Amas, it is challenging for them to accept outsiders.

When asked why she continues to be an Ama after diving for 50 years, Nakayama said she loves the fact that the hard work she puts in is rewarded in the form of cash.

"In comparison to being a housewife, where the work is not valued or rewarded, being an Ama, you're rewarded instantly," said Nakayama.

"Even if I'm not successful one day, I try again the next," she added.

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