The waters of the Matoya Bay near the small fishing village of Osatsucho in Mie Prefecture in Japan are murky and chilly even in June. After an hour of treading water in only swim trunks, fins and cheap dive mask, I’m beginning to think a wetsuit might have been a good idea. The thought lasts only a moment when an older woman in an outdated dive mask with her head swaddled in white cloth like a nun’s habit, bursts through the water to the left of me. While hard to make out features with her face almost completely obscured, I’m pretty sure it’s my host, 63-year-old Sayuri Nakamura.
She looks like one of the G.I. Joe “Frogman” toys I had as a kid. Grinning and chattering merrily in Japanese, she beckons me towards her, holding a large sea urchin in her hand. As I approach, she takes out her kaginomi, a long metal chisel used both to steady oneself on rocks in the strong ocean current and to pry urchin and abalone loose from the rocks below. She cracks the delicacy open, exposing the orange flesh inside. Together, we share the raw urchin, its sweetness mingling with the brine of the ocean around us, and rest momentarily from the efforts of free diving. She flashes a smile bright with silver fillings and then disappears beneath the surface again.
It’s known as the “50 second battle,” a dive to depths of up to 30 feet, a minute or more underwater, often times in freezing, low visibility conditions. The prizes are abalone, sea urchin, and other valuable delicacies found hiding in the rocks and reefs off the coast of Japan. The women are known as the Ama (or Ama-san, when the honorific is included) and though the work is dangerous and extremely physical, it’s now mostly done by women in the 60s and older. There are theories for this—some say the older women can hold their breath longer than younger women—but it’s also true that fewer young women are entering the trade. There was a brief resurgence of online interest as some old topless photos of “the mermaids of Japan” resurfaced (in the old days, they dove only in a loincloth, though some of the photos were actual Ama and some were staged with models). But like many of the old ways, traditional free diving is struggling to find relevance in society increasingly turning away from the traditions of the past.
It’s not just the Ama, of course: everywhere in Japan, the ancient and the modern coexist in a fragile balance. A man hand-harvests rice in a small plot with the same tools his grandfather and great-grandfather used, then boards a bullet train bound for Tokyo, mobile phone glued to his ear. But the scales are tipping towards modernity and away from tradition. The Japanese, with an abiding love for statistics, have tracked the diminishment of the Ama-san over the past half-century. Between Toba-city and Shima-city, historically the two areas with the highest concentration of divers, the number of active Ama has shrunk by nearly 85% between 1949 and 2010. Younger generations simply show little interest in tackling this difficult job and, as the number of abalone continue to dwindle, so does the economic opportunity. Today’s Ama-san may dive five days a month, working other jobs such as farming or tourism to supplement their income. During their heyday 50 years ago, they would be in the water as many as 20 days a month during season.
To the small group of women still practicing in Osatsu, however, the dive, the hunt, and the catch still represent a type of economic and spiritual freedom. When they are upset, they dive; when they are sick, they dive; there is camaraderie that extends beyond the water. And the money they earn is their own, hard won, distinct from that of their husband.
Back in the water, Nakamura and her compatriots on today’s dive, 67-year-old Sumiko Matsui and 60-year-old Yoshino Uemura, have decided it’s time to head back to shore. They usher me back to the beach and exit the water. They hoist their gear—nets, buoys, and bags filled with wakame seaweed, urchin, abalone, and a wayward octopus they snared as well and start the hike back to the Ama Goya, essentially a clubhouse where they Ama hang out, relax, and apparently spend a good deal of time making fun of their husbands. Along the way, we stop at a fresh-water tank near the local fish market to wash the salt off of wetsuits and other gear. Matsui-san, the oldest and clearly the leader of this small group, is mugging for the camera and suddenly her and her friends are in a miniature water fight—dumping buckets of fresh water on each other’s heads and giggling like kids. They beckon me over and, before I know it, I’ve had to toss my camera aside as they start throwing water on me. Their tradition may be dying out, but the Ama of Toba aren’t going down without a (water) fight