Ama* – ‘women of the sea’ – came together from around Japan and Korea for their third annual Ama Summit in Toba City, Mie Prefecture, October 29 and 30, 2011. Hosted by Dr. Yoshitaka Ishihara, Director of the Toba Sea-Folk Museum, the summit offered academic talks, cultural presentations, and a seafood banquet. It culminated with the reports of Ama representatives from their local associations on Sunday afternoon. Seventy-eight Ama from 13 different regions, plus academics, journalists, and other interested parties attended the summit (total: 346 people). A highlight of the meeting was the release of juvenile abalone into the waters around Ousatsu Town on Sunday morning (see Photo 1).
The summit began Saturday afternoon at the Toba Sea-Folk Museum (see Photo 2). Dr. Ishihara presented ‘Wonderful Ama Culture’, a historical overview of Ama and their present status. Archeological digs have found abalone shells and prying tools to capture abalone; these artifacts indicate Ama have inhabited Toba for at least 10,000 years. The words ‘tanra awabi’ (korean abalone) found written on wood, date to the 8th Century, and suggest a link between Japanese and Korean Ama. A Chinese history book from the 3rd Century included the first written description of Japanese divers. The first use of ‘Ama’ in Japanese literature occurred circa 8th Century. Specific use of ‘Ama’ for females referred to the Ama of Shima**, Toba’s neighbor city (early 10th Century). Toba has been home to the largest concentration of Ama from the time of modern records (1931), including the present day. Thus, it was in Toba that Dr. Ishihara chose to found this museum in 1971, to preserve and maintain the traditions of Ama and other fishers (see Photos 3 and 4; for more information: Toba Sea-Folk Museum website.
Professor Tsukamoto, Mie University, described the ‘History of Ama Tourism.’ He illustrated his talk with images of old paintings, as well as photographs and posters. The local tourism industry has featured Ama for over a century, including diving demonstrations, shows and photo opportunities (see Photo 5). He noted many of the unrealistic settings and fantastic associations of Ama, and considered these works within the context of the broader Japanese culture (see Photos 6 and 7).
Professor Sugawara, Mie University, addressed the question, ‘How can we preserve Ama culture?’ He described the creation of the new ‘Society for the Study of Ama’, led by Dr. Ishihara. One of their current efforts is to register Ama as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ with the United Nations. This effort is critical due to the rapidly aging population of Ama, most Ama are over 60 years old, and their decline in numbers, a loss of over 80% relative to their peak in the 1950’s. Some local Ama associations consist of only a handful of divers and may disappear entirely in the next few years (for a graph of Ama populations past and present see page 12 of ‘AmaSummit2011InToba.pdf’). Dr. Ishihara concluded these talks by encouraging Ama to take a greater role in their local Fishermen’s Associations. In addition, he suggested they should pay more attention to the conservation of their resources: abalone, turban snails, and seaweeds. For example, Ama could wear cameras on their dive masks to gather basic information about the habitats where they work.
A special presentation by Korean Ama ended the afternoon session. Cheju Island, off the southern tip of Korea, is home to the largest population of Ama (5,000), more than double the entire population of Japanese Ama (2,200). Three Korean Ama sang traditional songs, accompanied with drums and stylized movements (see Photo 8 and Video 1).
Saturday evening the summit moved to Ousatsu Town, part of the larger Toba City. This town has the highest number of registered Ama in Japan (100). The Saturday night banquet, held in the Ousatsu community hall, included a seafood spread with plenty of beverages. There were several speeches, formal and informal. As the evening progressed, the Ama shared more of their songs and dances, including a repeat of songs by the Korean Ama; many Japanese Ama joined the dance (see Photos 9-11 and Video 2). Later, the Japanese Ama sang traditional songs (Video 3).
One trio of Ama drew special attention, three generations of Ousatsu women diving together. The youngest woman, Shizuka Nakagawa, is a university student. She recently joined her mother and grandmother as a diver. Her mother, Sanae Nakagawa, came from outside Toba; she had never seen Ama before her marriage to a man from Ousatsu. However, once in Ousatsu, she learned to dive from her mother-in-law, Sumiko Nakagawa. Sumiko Nakagawa (the grandmother) gets new pleasure being able to dive together with her daughter and granddaughter. They live together as well, and enjoy talking about their Ama work while at home (see Photo 12).
We met several other Ama and their friends. Orange wristbands were handed out in support of the people of Tohoku (see Photos 13-15).
The local hotels and their onsen (hot baths) were filled with Ama that weekend. During the banquet and in the baths, Reiko took part in several conversations with Ama. Most were in their 50s, 60s or 70s, and all talked of the need to get in the water everyday to prevent or cure various ailments (sore shoulders, constipation, etc.). They all appreciated their lives as Ama, although many were concerned about the lack of young Ama and diminishing resources. Similar sentiments were voiced the next afternoon.
We were up early Sunday to prepare for the release of juvenile abalone into the waters off Ousatsu. The culture and release of young abalone may prevent the overharvest of these valuable snails. Also, this release was a unifying act for these Ama, to celebrate and preserve their way of life. The wind had kicked up waves, not a great day to dive. However, 23 Ama entered the water, each wearing the distinctive outfits typical of their region. These Ama represented seven of Japan’s prefectures as well as Cheju Island, Korea (see Photos 16-18 and Video 4).
Ama usually dive to depths of 3-20 meters (10-66’) to harvest shellfish and seaweed. They enter the water either from the shore or from a boat. Also, they know their local reefs from hundreds of years of collective experience. This dive was different because they were releasing abalone (not harvesting them), and this reef was new to most of the divers. A boat was anchored over the reef to help the Ama orient to the site. They entered from the shore through some substantial surf (Photos 19 and 20).
After swimming out, they made frequent dives of approximately 30-second durations to release their abalone, placing each individual carefully among the rocks where they would be protected from predators (Photos 21-24).
Photos 22a – 22e depict the dive sequence:
Between dives they rested on their floats and vigorously ventilated their lungs. They released a total of 3,000 abalone. The divers exited the water at a more protected beach (Photos 25 and 26). Afterward, the divers gathered for photos (Photos 27 and 28, see also Photo 1), then returned to their hotels for a communal bath (in the onsen) and lunch.”]
The actual Ama Summit was held Sunday afternoon when Ama gathered on stage to discuss their current conditions. The Mayors of Toba City and Shima City, as well as the Governor of Mie Prefecture welcomed them. Just before the reports, Dr. Ishihara announced that Ama had been invited from all prefectures. Unfortunately, the Ama of Kuji City, Iwate Prefecture, and Ishimaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, were not able to attend due to the Tohoku disaster (i.e. Tohoku/Fukushima earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident). They sent their regards.
Twelve Ama, representatives of their local associations, presented the status of their groups (Photo 29). Each of them reported that awabi (abalone) and sazae (turban snails) were their two primary fisheries. Some groups also take uni (sea urchin). Most of the speakers noted, however, that these resources had declined. For example, Ms. Kazuko Hamaguchi, Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, said that when she was a girl, she caught 150 kg (330 pounds) a day of sazae with her father; now she can only harvest 20 kg (66 pounds) on a good day. They attributed these changes to either overfishing, environmental degradation that affects the kelp (the food of abalone and sazae), or both. Several groups of Ama attempt to mitigate these problems by releasing juvenile abalone, ‘seeding’ the reef with seaweed (food for abalone and sazae), or improving the shoreline to limit erosion.
Typical of Ama today, most of the speakers were over 50 years of age, grew up in Ama villages, and had been diving from their teens or early twenties. The eldest, Ms. Hatsuko Nagata, Tottori City, Tottori Prefecture, had been diving over 50 years, since the age of 17 (Photo 30). Ms. Nagata recounted the origins of Ama in Tottori, over 400 years ago. At the time of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a boatman named Sukeemon guided Lord Kamei-kou to Korea. For his service, the lord gave him rights to the ocean’s bounty off the shore of Natsudomari (Tottori), to catch whatever he liked. Thus, he brought Ama from Ise, and they married with the fishermen of Natsudomari. Ms. Nagata’s father was the twelfth generation of these fishermen. She recounted how there were many young Ama when she began to dive, but sadly, today there are few young Ama; most are in their 60’s and 70’s. Still, Ms. Nagata is thankful for the ocean’s gifts and plans to continue diving as long as possible.
Subsequent Ama representatives referred to Ms. Nagata as an inspiration. They wanted to continue diving for as long as possible, and many mentioned the health benefits of diving in the ocean every day. However, Ama populations are aging, and few young women are interested in becoming Ama. It is strenuous work, and seasonal. Ms. Hamaguchi (Kushimoto) reported only two other Ama in her prefecture. She is the only Ama left in her town, although two men have begun working as Otoko Ama on the weekends.
Ms. Suzuki, representing Chiba Prefecture, was a notable exception to this trend of aging Ama. She is a Tokyo native who loved the ocean. She dreamed of swimming with dolphins, and eventually made her dream come true. Then she decided to become Ama herself. Her group is one of the last to dive without wetsuits (Photos 17, 22, 24 and 28). Although she dives in traditional gear, Ms. Suzuki is very much a modern Ama. She carried a video camera on her mask for some of her abalone dives last year, and she participates in her own version of synchronized swimming events. Some of her videos are online (e.g. abalone diving: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Xge5ml7OIk ; swimming with competitive breath hold diver: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ea6QJu4Ls1s ).
Ms. Shimajyu, from Nagato City, Yamaguchi Prefecture, represented the other Ama that dive without wetsuits. The Ama of Nagato are unique in being titled Ama-shi. They received this title from Lord Mouri-kou during the Edo Period. The title gives them status equal to the rank of samurai.
The Ama of Wajima City, Ishikawa Prefecture, along the Sea of Japan, stand out as the only group of Ama with a growing population. Also, they have a unique policy of sharing their catch. I hoped to hear more from this group. However, they had to leave after the morning dive because of their long trip home, and were not present for this discussion (see Photo 27).
The three generations of the Nakagawa Family (described above, Photos 12 and 29) were also on stage to describe their experience and lively relationship. The youngest generation was given much encouragement by the other Ama at the conference.
Entertainment was provided before and after the Ama reports. Taiko drummers from the local high school played (Photo 31). The Korean Ama performed again. Ms. Oota interviewed a well-known singer, Mr. Yutaka Yamakawa, whose mother was Ama. Mr. Yamakawa sang several songs after the interview. Based on the response of the Ama in attendance, he was the highlight of the entertainment. The older Ama were on their feet with excitement and applause. Mr. Yamakawa posed with them for a group picture (Photos 32 and 33).
The summit was an exciting event to observe, especially the release of abalone. The Ama enjoyed meeting other Ama, trading ideas and techniques. They plan to hold the fourth annual Ama summit in the fall, 2012.
* Ama dive for shellfish, seaweed and other food items, hence they are commonly called ‘Ama divers’. While ‘Ama’ generally refers to women, there are also Otoko Ama – male Ama. Currently, there are more male Ama than female Ama in Japan. However, male divers occur in many other countries, whereas the special culture of female divers is unique to the Ama of Japan and Korea. Male divers were not invited to this summit.
** Toba City lies between Ise City and Shima City. ‘Ise-Shima’, or just ‘Shima’ are commonly used to refer to the general area.
For more on Ama see these earlier posts: