Ama – ‘women of the sea’ – harvest food from the coastal waters of Japan and Korea. Men – otoko ama – dive for shellfish in some places of Japan (otoko ama – male ama). However, the largest concentration of ama work the coastlines of Toba and Shima, and these ama are mostly women (see Photos 1 & 2).
Ama catch a variety of food, depending on season. Awabi – abalone – is the most valuable, at $100 per kg ($45 per pound). Sazae – top snails – make up the bulk of the catch, but are not as profitable. Other prey include ise-ebi (spiny lobster), tako (octopus), uni (sea urchin) and namako (sea cucumber), and wakame (a brown seaweed).
Each day before diving, ama gather together in their ama goya – small huts with an open fire. They chat and relax while warming themselves, and then go together to sea. They may enter directly from the shore, or go further offshore by boat. Once they enter the water, however, they are on their own. Each diver hunts her section of the reef and competes for the biggest catch – important economically, as well as for status within the community. At the end of the day’s diving they return together to their ama goya to relax and warm up (Photo 3).
An exception to this pattern is the annual harvest of hijiki (Phaeophyta, Sargassum fusiforme). This brown seaweed grows low in the intertidal zone. Once a year, during the lowest tides of spring, ama work together to harvest hijiki along their shores. The harvest is sold as a unit and the profits shared by all. It is a major event of the year. They hold the event on weekends so that family members, even those that moved to cities, can return to help with the harvest. Ama own the rights (gyoken) to harvest their shores, and only ama can actually cut the seaweed. Their husbands, brothers, sons and grandsons help bag the seaweed and transport it back to port. Sisters, daughters, in-laws, etc. help lay out the seaweed to dry (see Photo 4).
We made plans to observe the annual hijiki harvest at three different ama towns. The exact date of the harvest depends on the weather as well as the tides. Two tentative dates were cancelled due to rain and rough water. Rain prevents drying, and the freshwater breaks down the seaweed’s tissues. Rough water produces strong waves, a significant danger when working the shore.
Fortunately, we were able to visit the ama of Ijika Town, Toba City, as they harvested hijiki (see Photo 5). They planned their harvest for the first weekend of May. A ‘supermoon’** that Sunday (May 6th) created the lowest tides of the year. It rained on Saturday, so there was no harvest that day. Early Sunday morning we called from our home in Kyoto. Our friend and colleague in Ijika, Mr. Tatsuya Sato, reported that it was cloudy, but not raining. The ama gathered in their ama goya (huts) at 7:00 AM. They left for the beach at 9:00 AM to catch the low tide.
We arrived in town just before noon. The parking lot by the port was covered in cut hijiki, and ama relatives were busy spreading more on the ground (see Video 1 and Photo 4). A transport boat had just unloaded its hijiki and was heading back for more (Photo 6). That boat took us to the beach where ama were at work. A skiff came out to meet the boat with another load of seaweed. Once the seaweed was transferred onboard, the skiff took us to the rocky headland where a group of 19 ama and 13 men were hard at work (Photos 7-9).
Ama were variously sitting or standing on the rocks; others stood in the water up to their necks. They used kama – a type of sickle – to cut hijiki from the rocks. They cut a few pieces of seaweed with each stroke, pieces of 30-90 cm in length (about 1-3 feet). The cut seaweed was placed in a net basket tied at the waste, or placed in a pile to be picked up by the men (Photos 10-13, Video 2).
The group we watched had begun work at the northern edge of Ijika, on its border with Uramura Town (location of the Toba Seafolk Museum). The women worked close together, slowly moving between patches of seaweed. After completing one section, they moved southward toward the center of Ijika (Photo 14 & Video 3).
Men gathered up the cut hijiki from the ama into larger bags. They piled the bags where the skiffs could come in for pick up. Skiffs had to carefully navigate their way between the rocks, using anchors and poles to avoid damage. Once in place, the men created a chain to pass the bags from the shore onto the skiffs. Occasionally a bag missed its target and had to be retrieved from the water. The skiff took its load to the larger boat, which in turn took the harvest back to port where it could be dried (Photos 15 & 16).
The shoreline of Toba consists of rocky headlands separated by cobble beaches. The ama worked each rocky section, and then hiked along the cobble beach to the next headland. As they passed, the shore looked as if it had received a haircut – with 10-15 cm (4-6 inches) of hijiki still attached to rocks above the waterline (Photo 17 & Video 4).
It was fairly calm at noon – cloudy, with patches of blue sky and sun breaks. By 1 p.m., however, the wind began to pick up and with it came more clouds. The ama climbed over a large headland to avoid the building storm and waves. They would come back to this spot the next day, weather permitting. They eventually came to a section of shore protected from the wind and waves, and went back to their work. We could see the port from here (Photo 18).
They continued to work as the rain began to fall around 1:30 p.m. We left shortly afterward, and hiked back to town, a ten-minute walk. The ama followed us a few minutes later. Back at the port, all of the hijiki had been gathered up and covered by tarps to protect it from the rain. The ama piled into pickup trucks, and the harvest was over for that day (Photos 19-22).
We spent the night within sight of the port, at the home of Mr. Tatsuya Sato (a young biologist, generous host and excellent cook). At 5:08 a.m. the town’s loudspeakers woke us up with the day’s work plan: meet at 5:30 to dry the seaweed from yesterday; depart at 9 a.m. to cut more hijiki. The early morning event was for all: ama and their relatives. They needed to get yesterday’s hijiki out to dry to prevent spoilage. By 6:00 the port’s parking lots were covered in hijiki and one group started to cover the top of the breakwater (see Photos 23-25 and Photo 38).
We followed the same group from the day before as they drove to a quiet back road outside of town. Dump trucks brought bags of seaweed for distribution along the road, and everyone spread it as quickly as possible. At one point, they had to stop and uncover a lane of pavement to allow a car to ‘escape’. Once the car passed, they quickly filled the space with hijiki and moved on (Photos 26-29).
Reiko spoke with one of the ama while we were waiting. She was 68 years old, one of the younger ama in Ijika. Like many of them, her mother was also ama. However, her daughter had not joined her as an ama. All of the ama of Ijika are over 60; most are in their 70’s. They are concerned about the future of ama in Ijika.
By 7 a.m. they had completed the section of road to where it connects with the road that leads to the Toba Sea-Folk Museum in Uramura (the neighboring town, Photo 30). We headed back to town for breakfast. Sato-san prepared another seafood feast.
At 9 a.m. ama were gathered around their ama goya, chatting, showing off some potted plants, and getting ready for the day’s harvest (Photo 31). The ama of Ijika are divided into four groups, each works their own section of Ijika’s reefs. However, as part of the shared harvest, the four groups rotate these areas each year on the weekend when they cut hijiki. We had been with the minami (south) group the day before. This year, it was their turn to harvest the northern section of Ijika. Yesterday, they had gone by boat to the northern edge of town and worked their way back to town. Today, other groups headed south by boat, but the minami group walked back to where they had stopped yesterday (Photos 32 & 33). We walked with them to the end of the road. By 9:30 they had climbed down the stairs to the beach, and sat down to wait for low tide. Some of the men travelled with them; others came by boat with the bags ready for harvest. We said our goodbyes and returned to Kyoto (see Photos 34-38).
The hijiki harvested this weekend was dried over the next few days. It was boiled and then dried again before being sold to retail markets, about one month later. Consumers buy hijiki in its dried form. It can be eaten as dried flakes mixed with other items (e.g. sesame seeds, dried fish) and sprinkled over rice; these mixtures are known as furikake. Another common usage is to soak dried hijiki in water, and then fry it with carrots, oage (a type of fried tofu), konyaku (processed yam) and other foods as a side dish. Alternatively, it can be cooked with rice along with carrots, etc. in a rice cooker (see Photos 39 & 40).
Many types of seaweed pick up arsenic from the waters where they grow. Most of this arsenic is in an organic form not considered dangerous in the typical quantities used by consumers. Hijiki, however, contains relatively large concentrations of inorganic arsenic, a carcinogen. Some western governments, particularly members of the UK, have cautioned against its consumption. Most Japanese health experts have suggested that hijiki is safe for the typical Japanese household, given common serving size and frequency of use. None of the people we knew in Kyoto were aware of this concern. However, a 2008 paper by Nakamura et al concluded that its contribution to cancer “. . . may not be negligible.”***
Special thanks to Mr. Tatsuya Sato for sharing his knowledge and home. We are grateful to the many ama of Ijika Town who allowed us to observe their harvest (Photo 41).
** A ‘supermoon’ or ‘perigee moon’ refers to a full moon or new moon coinciding with the moon’s perigee, when it is closest to Earth. Supermoons appear larger, and cause greater tidal exchanges, both higher high tides and lower low tides. This year the full moon occurred one minute after perigee on May 6th (Japan time).
*** Nakamura Y, Narukawa T, Yoshinaga J. 2008. Cancer risk to Japanese population from the consumption of inorganic arsenic in cooked hijiki. J. Agric. Food Chem. 56: 2536-2540