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The Ama : The Women Pearl Divers of Japan

Pearl diving has to be one of history's most dirty jobs. Difficult and dangerous, this occupation was at times forced upon slaves. And yet, the Ama or "Sea Women" of Japan have been diving successfully for perhaps 2000 years and still are very proud of this tradition. In the past they were after pearls and seafood until Mikimoto cultured pearls came along. Today, this gemstone is but a bonus secondary to the abalone, sea urchin, sea-snails and other Japanese delicacies.

They free dive which means that without modern scuba gear, they have about a minute or so to swim down, find the seafood, often wriggling upside down in small crevices to get at the abalone, lever it out and ascend. Women likely excel at this because they are able to withstand the cold better than men and with their smaller size, able to fit into tighter spots. Thinking of synchronised swimmers, there may be some truth to the belief that women can hold their breaths longer than men. The season is short - from bone-chilling March to September with strict controls on how long they can dive per day - and yet, they make a very good living, far better than their husbands or other salaried workers. The best divers are usually middle-aged.

Over the past century, they have tried using better equipment but these were abandoned to avoid overfishing. They do wear some light clothing today although the white, near transparent suits are worn only by divers working in the tourist areas. Up until the 1950's, they wore usually not much more than loincloths. Not surprisingly, the Ama have appeared in various Japanese woodblock erotica such as the one shown here by one of Japan's most famous artists, Hokusai (1760-1849). The Ama naturally made it into a James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, (1967) where the ridiculous plot involved 007 marrying a bikini clad Ama!!! But it is no fantasy that they are a dying breed today as young women are no longer attracted to the profession.

Picture Source

References
The Ama : The Women Divers of Japan by Sandy Lydon
Women Divers of Japan by Bethany Leigh Grenald
Modern Times for Ama Divers by Ruth Linhart

4 comments:

  1. This was fascinating! I was fortunate enough to inherit a string of Mikimoto pearls (in a pretty brocade case) which still had the original borchure or whatever you want to call it -- printed information, anyway -- dating back to the Korean War. I had no idea that slavery played a part in Japan's pearl industry history, or that women were pearl divers... Thanks for all the links: I'm looking forward to doing a bit of reading!

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  2. No, slavery did not play a part in Japan's pearl industry. The Ama were and still are highly thought of in Japan - they were prized brides! The comment on slavery refers to pearl diving in other parts of the world.

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  3. Ah, that's good to know. Thanks for clarifying - it makes me feel much happier about owning those vintage pearls! Yes, I've definitely got some reading to do... ;)

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  4. Wow can you imagine how strong they must be?

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