Season Opens for Lobsters in Japan: Ama Dive

Ise-ebi (Panulirus japonicus, lobster) season opened October 1 in the Ise-Shima area of Mie Prefecture. Whereas most fishermen use nets to catch these animals at night, the Ama of Goza Town dive for lobster during the day. One Ama in particular has developed her own specialized tool to catch these spiny crustaceans (see Photo 1).

Photo 1: Machiyo Yamashita-san, diving with her modified ebi hasami (lobster scissors). See Photo 8 for the catch at the end of this dive. 

I wrote about Ama in an earlier blog (Shirongo Matsuri: Ama Diver Festival). Ama – ‘people of the sea’ – dive for shellfish and seaweed in Japan and Korea. Mostly women, they have been diving the waters of Japan for thousands of years, particularly in the Ise-Shima area. This area still harbors the largest population of active Ama in Japan. However, their numbers have declined by 80% from the 1960s, and most of the active divers are over 65 years of age (see Photo 2).

Photo 2: Yamashita-san with an older Ama diving for awabi (abalone) in 2009. Note the corrective lenses in the older diver’s mask (foreground) and her isomino (tool). Most Ama in Ise-Shima are over 65 years of age. Yamashita-san, in her early 60s, is a leader of the younger generation of Ama.

Historically, Ama dived with little or no clothing, and no dive gear per se, other than an oke  (a wooden bucket, or half barrel) that holds the catch and provides a buoy for rest at the surface, and an isomino (tool; like an ‘abalone iron’) to help catch abalone and other shellfish (see Photo 3). Modern Ama use wet suits (5 mm thick in Ise-Shima), mask and fins, but they still dive one breath at a time (see Photo 4). A ring-style life preserver with nets has replaced the oke. Ama still use an isomino, as well as some newer tools to catch prey (see Photo 5).

Photo 3: Ama diver show at Mikimoto Pearl Island. The divers in these shows are not real ama. They wear the standard ama gear used in the early to mid-20th Century: a white Isogi outfit, a mask but no fins, an oke (bucket with rope) to hold their catch and provide support at the surface, and an isomino (tool, not shown).

Photo 4: Yamashita-san with awabi (abalone), summer 2009.

Photo 5: Yamashita-san’s dive gear. The ring-style life preserver has replaced the oke (wooden bucket). Attached are several tools (from left to right): protruding from underneath the float is a pencil-shaped tool used to string fish; on top of the float is her isomino, one end can be used to pry abalone from their attachment rock (bottom in photo), the hook on the other end of the isomino is used for sazae (turban shells) and Ise-ebi (lobster); in the middle of the float is the mesh bag for holding prey, additional net bags may be used depending on season; on the right is her modified ebi hasami (lobster scissors), note the added ‘teeth’ for grasping  prey. You can also see her mask in its wooden case. 

Three years ago, I had the great fortune to meet Dr. Ishihara, the Director of the Toba Seafolk Museum. Toba City is the center of Ama activity in Ise-Shima, and Dr. Ishihara has created an impressive museum here dedicated to all things Ama and other traditional fishers (see Photo 6; more on the museum in a later blog). Dr. Ishihara has provided enormous support for my studies, and he introduced me to an extraordinary Ama, Machiyo Yamashita-san (see Photo 7).

Photo 6: Dr. Ishihara in front of his giant Awabi (abalone) display, part of a special exhibit focused on this most important of Ama fisheries (Summer 2009).

Photo 7: Yamashita-san making a surface dive. We took this shot in June 2009, during our first visit.  

Machiyo Yamashita-san lives and works in Goza town, part of Shima City, on the tip of the Shima Peninsula. Whereas most Ama protect their privacy, Yamashita-san allows herself to be filmed for television and print media. She took us diving two years ago during awabi (abalone) season, the most profitable catch for Ama. We came back this fall in time for the opening of Ise-ebi season, the famous local spiny lobster. [‘Ise-ebi’ combines the regional term – Ise, and the term for shrimp – ebi.] The season begins October 1 and continues through the end of April. We visited her on October 12 and went diving for lobster (see Photo 8).

Photo 8: Yamashita-san with her modified ebi hasami (lobster scissors). She adds the metal ‘teeth’ to these scissors to improve their ability to grab lobster from the cracks where they hide.

Yamashita-san uses three different tools to catch lobster: the classic isomino, a two-pronged spear with rubber sling (similar to a ‘Hawaiian sling’), and an ebi hasami – a special pair of scissors she modified to reach into crevices and pull out her spiny prey. During two hours of diving, we saw her use each of these tools (see Photos 9-11). As she came up from a dive with a lobster (sometimes two, Photo 12), she placed them into the net suspended from her oke (see Photo 13).

Photo 9: Ise-ebi caught by ebi hasami. 

Photo 10: Ise-ebi caught by isomino. 

Photo 11: Ise-ebi caught by spear.

Photo 12: Yamashita-san with 2 Ise-ebi.

Photo 13: At the surface, Ise-ebi are placed in the net bag suspended from the float.

Like other Ama, diving is a business and her success depends on her catch. She made repeated breath-hold dives of approximately 30 seconds, followed by about 30 seconds of vigorous breathing at the surface to prepare for the next dive, approximately 100 dives in 2 hours. I had difficulty keeping up with her in my SCUBA gear with camera. Despite the 72oF water, I was sweating in my wetsuit. Between dives she surveyed the bottom from the surface (Photo 14), diving each time to the bottom, 15-25’ below. At some locations, she made several dives at the same rock formation before moving on. As she captured prey, she also was planning her next dive (see Photo 15). At first she let her oke drift on the surface, but later she tied it to her to prevent it moving away in the surge.

Photo 14: In between dives, Ama rest at the surface using their oke for support. They push the oke ahead of them as they survey the bottom, looking for their next prey.

Photo 15: With one Ise-ebi in hand, Yamashita-san eyes more lobsters in the crevice, and plans her next dive.  

She used her spear to shoot fish, as well as lobster (see Photo 16). She focused on fish in and around the rock formations where lobsters hid (Photo 17). Her fish prey included mebaru and kasago (rockfishes, Family Scorpaenidae, Photo 18), as well as the local filefish, kawahagi (Stephanolepis cirrhifer, Figure 19). At one point, she shot a rabbitfish (Family Siganidae) with her spear and on the same dive caught a filefish by hand (see Figures 20 and 21). She released the rabbitfish because of its sharp, poisonous spines; we ate the filefish at dinner. She had an unusual method of transferring fish from her spear to the stringer. Using a pencil, she threaded the fish through the gills and out the mouth, then used her two feet to push the fish off the spear points; this method avoids the spines of her catch (see Photos 22-24).

Photo 16: Surface dive with spear.

Photo 17: Hunting for prey with a spear.

Photo 19: Yamashita-san with speared kasago (Sebastiscus marmoratus, a rockfish). 

Photo 19: Fish on a stringer attached to the float. The two fish on the left are kawahagi (filefish, Stephanolepis cirrhifer); most of the others on the right are rockfish.

Photo 20: Yamashita-san speared a rabbitfish (Family Siganidae) and in the same crevice grabbed this filefish with her left hand.

Photo 21: Close up of the filefish in Figure 21, after release of the rabbitfish.

Photo 22: After spearing a fish, Yamashita-san pulls on the line connected to her float (upper right, background).

Photo 23: Yamashita-san puts the fish stringer through the gills and out the mouth of the fish. She then uses both feet to push the fish off the spear points.

Photo 24: Akahata (bass, Epinephalus fasciatus) and rockfish on stringer.

We went to the dive site by boat. Along the way, we passed the highest hill in the area, crowned by a shrine to Daimyojin and a nearby lighthouse. As they pass this site, Ama give a bow and prayer to Daimyojin for their diving safety and success. At one point during our dives, we changed locations to find more Ise-ebi. Our sendo-san (boatman) is an Otoko Ama (male ama, see Photo 25). He became Yamashita-san’s first apprentice 15 years ago (for three years). He dives during the awabi (abalone) season (spring and summer), but fishes the rest of the year, and provides boat service for ama. His 24-year old daughter is Yamashita-san’s newest apprentice.

Photo 25: Sendo-san (boatman) and Otoko-Ama (male ama). He fishes most of the year and dives during awabi (abalone) season. 

As we returned from our dive, Yamashita-san expressed some disappointment with her catch: 13 lobsters, 8 rockfishes, 5 filefish and one bass (see Photo 26). Last year she could easily catch 20-30 lobsters on a dive. As she explained over dinner, fishing this year had been poor. She gave at least some of the blame to the tsunami. While the more typical taiphoon stirs up waters and enriches them, the much stronger tsunami pulled up polluted sediments from the ocean bottom and flushed wastewater from Ise Bay and other local bays.

Photo 26: The days catch for two hours of diving.

Before and after dives, Ama gather around a fire in an ama-goya (ama hut). Fancier versions of ama-goya are used as seafood restaurants, run and supplied by Ama. Yamashita-san opened her own ama-goya four years ago (see Photo 27). She has agreements with local hotels to provide dinner, while the hotels serve breakfast along with a room for their guests. We enjoyed an enormous feast at Yamashita-san’s ama goya after our dive while she told us about her life as an ama diver (see Photos 28-30; dinner menu below). You can visit her website at

Photo 27: Yamashita-san’s Ama-Goya. This ‘ama hut’ serves the freshest of seafood feasts.

Photo 28: Large Ise-ebi are placed on their backs (so they cannot get away) and grilled at the table. Yamashita-san gave us a mini-lecture on how to tell the sexes apart. The female is on the left.

Photo 29: Some of the other items served at dinner: a smaller lobster cooked tempura style, a dish of Mozuku sunomono (seaweed in vinegar), mebaru (rockfish) and two scallops. 

Figure 30: Grilled Ise-ebi (lobster) enjoyed goukai (wild) style. 

Conditions the next day were not good for diving, and the day afterward Yamashita-san was joining Dr. Ishihara on their way to the Ama Conference in Korea. On our way out of town, Yamashita-san directed us to the shrine of Daimyojin (see Photos 31-33). We will meet her again this weekend at the International Ama Summit, hosted by Dr. Ishihara and colleagues at the Toba Seafolk Museum. We will return to Goza later this fall for Namako (sea cucumber) season!

Photo 31: Yamashita-san on her scooter, at the trailhead to Daimyojin Jinja (shrine).

Photo 32: Daimyojin Jinja. We were surprised to discover Daimyojin is a form of Inari, the god of rice (see last blog post on Fushimi Inari Daisha). More properly, this is Inari Daimyojin Jinja. Inari Daimyojin is a guardian of divers and fishermen. Local Ama and other fishers shorten the name to Daimyojin.

Photo 33: Inside Daimyojin Jinja. Note the offerings of awabi (abalone) shells, a sprig of sakaki (an evergreen sacred to Shinto) and several drinks including sake (rice wine), coffee, tea and an energy drink.

On our way back to Kyoto, we visited Osatsu Town, part of Toba City. This town has the densest population of active Ama in Japan. We will dive here as part of the conference this weekend, October 29 & 30. In the mean time, we spent a few days at a nori farm (seaweed) for seeding and initial growth. Wednesday (October 26) we enjoyed the first day of oyster harvest at Isobe-san’s Kouei Suisan (oyster farm, see earlier post #6). More soon!

Dinner Menu at Yamashita-san’s Ama Goya: October 12, 2011

  • Ise-ebi (lobster) large (1) cooked live over grill – Panulirus japonicus
  • Ise-ebi (lobster) small (1) tempura – Panulirus japonicus
  • Mebura (rockfish, 1) deep fried – Scorpaenid; likely Sebastes inermis, or Sebastiscus marmoratus
  • Surume ika (squid, 1) grilled – Todarodes pacificus
  • Batagai (swimming scallops, 2) broiled in shell – species unknown
  • Kamasu (barracuda, 1) dried/salted and grilled – probably Sphyraena japonica ,
  • Tekone Sushi one bowl – Katsuwonus pelamis (skipjack tuna) on seasoned rice
  • Kawahagi (filefish, 1) deep fried – Stephanolepis cirrhifer
  • Mozuku sunomono (sea weed in vinegar, one bowl) – Cladosiphon okamuranus
  • Miso soup with Asari clams – Venerupis philippinarum

Answer to Reader’s Question

After my Ama Matsuri report, a reader asked: Why are Ama divers mostly women? Three explanations have been proposed: 1) Women have a better developed layer of subcutaneous fat to protect them from the cold water; they also can tolerate chronic discomfort better than men; 2) Ama-san are associated with the sun goddess, Amaterasu Oomikami, enshrined nearby in Ise Jinguu, and 3) women tend to be safer divers and so persist for a long career vs. men, who tend to go after bigger prey, with either nets, hook and line, or both.

This entry was posted in Japan Sabbatical by Robert Reavis. Bookmark the permalink.

About Robert Reavis

I study fish behavior and marine ecology through direct observation while diving. I also teach General Biology, Marine Biology, SCUBA and Scientific Diving at Glendale Community College. This year (2011-2012) I will be in Japan to study Traditional Fisheries and Modern Environmentalism.

5 thoughts on “Season Opens for Lobsters in Japan: Ama Dive

  1. Pingback: Ama Harvest Hijiki: Ijika Town | Glendale Community College Blog

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  3. Pingback: Ama Summit 2011: Toba City, Japan | Glendale Community College Blog

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