Japan’s traditional women divers sustain tradition

Despite their advancing age, Japan’s so-called ama divers are going to great depths to keep the tradition alive.

The practice of ama, or diving for pearls, abalone and the like, has been around for 2,000 years. Mostly women have done this kind of fishing, earning the name which roughly translates to “sea woman.”

One of them is Mieko Kitai, now in her 70s, who to this day goes out to sea to dive —with nothing more than a mask —off Japan’s Pacific coast.

On a sunny day, Kitai meets with others of free divers in Shima, Mie prefecture, in western Japan to collect abalone, shellfish or sea urchins.

“Today, the fishing was better than I thought it would be,” said Kitai as she dropped an octopus and several turban shells, a prized shellfish delicacy, into her catch net.

But the times are getting harsher. Abalone is a main source of income for these women, and pollution as well as overfishing were threatening the age-old tradition.

“In the past you could get as many as 40 abalone in a day, but now getting four counts as a good day,” said Sumiko Nakagawa, a fellow free diver.

A kilogram of wild abalone sells for around 8,000 yen ($80). The creature’s population dropped by 90% in the last 40 years in Japan, and most abalone consumed in the market are now farmed.

They have also face competition from men after wetsuits were introduced. “Now there are almost as many men as women,” said professor Yoshitaka Ishihara, director of the Toba Sea-Folk Museum.

Ishihara also said ama diving is trying to keep up with the modern technique in Japan’s fishing industry.

“Now recruits have to undergo a tough initiation and for the first four years have to work with an experienced diver,” he said.

However, nothing can come close to the impressive skills of the ama divers from long ago.

By: Maesie Bertumen

Photo: mrlins/Flickr

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