Ama – ‘people of the sea’ – dive for shellfish and seaweed in Japan and Korea. Mostly women, they have been diving the waters of central Japan for thousands of years, particularly around Toba town in the Ise-Shima area. Suga Shima is a small island in Toba Bay and the site of a 700 year-old festival: Shirongo Matsuri. Also known as Shirongo-san, this festival is dedicated to Shirohige Daimiyoujin – ‘white-beard great god’ – the guardian of Suga Shima.
Shirongo-san is held on July 11, at the start of the diving season (photo 1). Ama divers gather at shirongohama (shirongo beach) in the morning and warm themselves around fires. The water temperature is in the low 70s in the summer. The guuji (Shinto priest) of Shirohige Jinja (shrine) gives a blessing, and a shell horn signals the start of the dive. Ama rush into the water in their traditional white isogi outfits and wooden buckets (photos 2 & 3). The special goal today is to be the first to catch a male and female abalone. This pair of abalone, the maneki awabi (welcoming abalone; photo 4) will be taken from the beach to the shrine by an unmarried ama, the hounou ama (presenter ama; photo 5). The woman who catches the maneki awabi will be the ama gashira (leader) for the year.
At the shrine, the presentation of the maneki awabi by the hounou ama is followed by a series of ritual prayers by the priest and his helpers (photo 6). This year five local men also joined the official party at the shrine. Each of the participants prayed, presented branches of sakaki (‘sacred tree’, Cleyera japonica, a flowering evergreen; photo 7) and drank a cup of sake (photo 8). At the end of the ceremony, the maneki awabi were sliced and served to the participants (photos 9 & 10). Left over slices of abalone were offered to those others in attendance, including Reiko and myself.
Back at the beach, the ama were just finishing their work (photos 11 & 12). They only dive one day a year at Shirongohama so their catch is bountiful. Most important to them are the awabi (abalone) which were sold on site for 8,500-12,000 yen per kilogram ($50-70 per pound; red abalone and black abalone, respectively). They also sold sazae (Turbo cornutus) a smaller snail, for 800 yen per kilogram (about $4.50 per pound).
Shirongo Matsuri celebrates the ama as well as their local god. It is the biggest annual event on the island, with many visitors and members of the media. Ama were joined by their family and friends (photo 13). School kids dressed up as ama or wore other traditional clothes (photo 14). Vendors sold food and drink, as well as souvenirs of the day. We later saw ama leave with their families by boat. We watched one elderly ama (perhaps in her 70s) help a middle-aged man (son?) and teenage girl (granddaughter?) into her boat, pick up the anchor, toss it into the boat and jump in after them.
Ten years ago over a hundred ama were active here (Tokai Agricultural Administration Station 2003). In 2007 there were 65 active ama, ages 31-72; their diving season was limited to 15 days (Ishihara et al 2009). We only saw 25-30 divers in the water this year, a subset of the 65 divers from 2007, now ages 35-75. Many of the other ama are still active, but were at their full time jobs on this Monday. Although experienced ama can earn a good wage while diving, the short season limits them to part-time work. This fact may explain, in part, the lack of new ama entering the fishery. Additionally, since the 1960s women have preferred modern jobs indoors.
The ama are one of the most distinctive groups of traditional fishers in Japan. They will be featured in other blogs this year. After the Shirongo Matsuri I visited two other ama in the Ise-Shima area.
Kenta Shimizu: A Young Male Ama
The Shima peninsula (Shima hantou) continues south and west from Toba Town. This rural region maintains a more sustainable ama fishery. Although the ama population has declined, a few new ama have entered the fishery; nearly half of these new ama are men.
Kenta Shimizu is 26 years old. He works as both an ama diver and SCUBA Divemaster at Dive Station 35, in the village of Kou, Shima Town. His father, Norio Shimizu, opened the dive shop 23 years ago. Shimizu-san needed permission from the local fisherman’s association to open his dive shop. At that time, he was also encouraged to use SCUBA to collect deeper abalone, and he was granted gyo ken – ‘fishing rights’ – to fish in the area. His son, Kenta-san, is allowed to work as an ama because of his father’s rights.
We visited them in the afternoon after the Shirongo Matsuri (photo 15). Kenta-san had finished his ama work for the day: a set of dives in the morning and another after lunch. He dives with two other young men, and more generally with the rest of the local ama. They dive for a total of 1-1.5 hours each outing, depending on the conditions and catch. As a young man, he considers himself much faster than the typical elderly woman ama. He also concentrates on awabi (abalone), which pays the best, but is hard to find. Other ama take large amounts of sazae as well as awabi. Today he caught about 5 kg of abalone at a wholesale price of 6,000-9,000 yen per kilogram ($35-50 per pound; red abalone and black abalone, respectively). He was not very happy with this catch. He is able to catch more abalone in May when the season opens. By mid-July, they have gone over their dive sites twice already. The season ends in mid-September.
Shimizu-san told us that when he started the shop in the 1980s there were problems with regulations and reporting of the abalone caught. The fishery is better maintained today. However, both father and son are concerned about the long term future of the fishery. For now, Kenta-san enjoys his ama work and it goes well with his job at Dive Station 35.
Yamashita-san: A Modern Ama Diver
At the tip of the Shima Peninsula is the village of Goza, Shima Town. Overlooking the beach is the ama goya (hut) of Machiyo Yamashita, an experienced diver and business woman. We spent two days diving with her in 2009 and were glad to see her again. In 2009, she had four younger divers working with her. They would come to her ama goya each morning before diving to chat and warm up by the fire. She has since expanded her business to include a fancy ama goya designed as a restaurant for tourists. She was busy with two groups of local businessmen so we kept our visit short. However, we will be returning to Goza to dive with Yamashita-san over the coming year (photo 16).
Ishihara Y, Maeda K. Medemiru Toba Shima no Ama. (in Japanese; See With Your Own Eyes: Women Divers of Toba and Shima). Toba Seafolk Museum. 2009. 63 pp.
Tokai Agricultural Administration Station, Mie Statistics and Information Office, Ise Branch. Toba Shima Chihou no Amamonogatari. (in Japanese; The Women Diver Story of Toba and Shima). Mie Association of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Statistics. 2003. 40 pp.
Watch the boats carrying the ama before they dive in: