Ama: The Japanese Pearl collector sea driver

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This is the One of the lesser-known but fascinating parts of Japanese culture is that of the Ama pearl divers. In Japan, Ama (海女 in Japanese), literally means 'woman of the sea' and is recorded as early as 750 in the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry, the Man'yoshu. Wearing nothing more than a loincloth these women specialized in freediving some 30 feet down into cold water. By utilizing special techniques to hold their breath for up to 2 minutes at a time, they would work for up to 4 hours a day to gather abalone, seaweed, and other shellfish. The practice of ama Japanese tradition holds maybe 2,000 years old. These women collect seafood and pearl oysters While skin diving (free diving). Diving for pearls is the most profitable pursuit. For Ama, traditionally, finding a pearl inside an oyster was akin to receiving a large bonus while they went about their ancestral practice of collecting shellfish. When Kokichi Mikimoto, founder of Mikimoto Pearl, began his enterprise that changed. As ama as early as 12 and 13 years old Women began diving, taught by elder ama. Divers are known to be active well into their 70s and are rumored to live longer due to their diving training and disciplines, despite their early start.

Women were considered to be superior divers due to the distribution of their fat and their ability to hold their breath, in Japan. Throughout time from the original loincloth to white sheer garb and eventually, to the modern diving wetsuit the garment of the ama has changed. By duty and superstition, the world of ama is marked. One traditional clothing article has stood the test of time is their headscarves. With symbols such as the seiman and the douman, the headscarves are adorned which have the function of bringing luck to the diver and warding off evil. To create small shrines near their diving location where they will visit after diving to thank the gods for their safe return ama are also known. While diving such as freezing temperatures and great pressures from the depths of the sea the ama were expected to endure harsh conditions. Many amas were noted to lose weight during the months of diving seasons, through the practice. A breathing technique is practiced by ama in which the divers would release air in a long whistle once they resurfaced from a dive. This technique of whistling became a defining characteristic of the ama as this technique is unique to them.

Recounting that one group was carried north by a typhoon, to then be shipwrecked and left to survive on the rocky shores of the Noto Peninsula on the Japan Sea, the legend continues. Descendants of the shipwrecked ama-san continue a seasonal semi-nomadic lifestyle, to this day. They stay close to mainland shores, diving for namako (sea-cucumber) and oysters, in the winter months. A few elders move to Hegura Island, come spring, an outpost island 50 kilometers from the peninsula shores. In 1867, Feudalism was abolished, and a new era embracing western thought, laws, science, and technology swept through the Japanese archipelago. The tides of change went almost unnoticed in the ama community of Hegura Island, and yet, as it is with many remote areas elsewhere in the world.

The defining elements of ama divers are Visual acuity, lung capacity, and hunter instinct. These natural abilities can be potentially altered by Technological innovations and it was this that the ama-san questioned. Followed by flippers, the next innovation debate focused on wet suits. The initial concern about potential negative impacts on marine resources, like the goggles, faded with time. About whether or not to allow oxygen tanks the next debate was. In a No verdict Collective voting resulted. Since this decision was made, Five decades have passed, and not once has it been questioned nor challenged among the ama-san of Hegura Island. To look after his cultivated pearls on Mikimoto Pearl Island, near Toba city, Mikimoto used Ama divers. For the strong association between Ama and pearl diving among foreign observers this business was the main reason that continues to this day. The 'traditional' white attire we often see Ama divers wearing was also created by Mikimoto is another little-known fact.

 

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