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 The thought lasts only a moment when an older woman in an outdated dive mask with her head swaddled in white cloth like a nun’s habit, bursts through the water to the left of me.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.
Coming up for air. Photo: Michael Magers
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.
Sumiko Matsui, 67, strikes a pose as she prepares her gear pre-dive. Photo: Michael Magers
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.