Ama—Free Divers

Legend, History and Reality
These days the aspirations of teenagers all over the developed world probably don’t vary much—I want to become  a professional footballer, a model, a singer.  A few might long to be an artist, a photographer or even to have a steady job in an office.  But there really can’t be many teenagers who would want to become a free diver!  Diving without oxygen tanks!  No thanks.

At fifteen, however, that is exactly what Chiharu Hayase wanted to do.  When I met her in June this year she told me, “I was always competitive by nature and when I was given the chance to dive for shellfish as a job, I knew it was for me.  It was a challenge, so I had to try it”.

When I was planning my trip to the Noto Peninsula I felt it would be interesting to do a story on these legendary free diving ladies known as ama but it was not going to be as easy as I had imagined.

First of all June was a bad time to see the Ama at work, simply because they actually work between July and April and take time off during October.

These are some of the boats which make the trip out to Hagura-jima.
Situated about 45 km off-shore from Wajima in the Japan Sea is Hagura-jima.  This small island is roughly two by one kilometres in size and the focus of a fishing and diving community dating back many centuries.  It was permanently inhabited up until 2005 but now the population is seasonal with a few living there for long periods while others choose to travel back and forth as necessary.

By all accounts facilities on the island are therefore meagre.  A boat does go out there most days, weather permitting, but if there is no diving a visit becomes a bird-watching trip instead, as the island is a well-known stop-over for migratory birds.

To be honest the prospect of a trip across potentially rough open water in a relatively small boat did not particularly thrill me as I’m not a very good sailor.  Also, originally when I told various people in Wajima that I would like to go to the island, everyone warned me about the mosquitoes.  Apparently they are large and fearsome.  The wearing of light colours was advised to ward off these tough insects, although they think nothing of penetrating jeans in search of nourishment!  So, reluctantly and with a degree of relief as well, I decided to pay a visit to the island another time.

Some of the nori—seaweed—from Hegura-jima
Admittedly, their skill as divers is only part of their notability. Undeniably the fact that in the past Ama worked bare-breasted contributed to their legendary status.  Why bare-breasted?  Because any excess clothing would impair their ability to dive, although a simple thong-like loincloth was worn as a matter of respectability and modesty.  Nowadays they wear fitted order-made wet suits but continue to hold their breath as they have always done.

With a lookout “diving buddy” on the surface in charge of a large coopered tub, in which to put the catch, Ama dive to a depth of about 20 meters in search of shellfish and seaweed in the shallows.  July is when the season starts with the gathering of abalone and turban shells.  Great care is exercised not to over fish and not to deplete the stocks of shellfish by taking any that are too small.  Chiharu says, however, that stocks are falling and the temperature of the sea has risen by one to two degrees during the time she has been working.  How long has she been diving?  “Thirty years” was the surprising answer.

It was a delight to meet Chiharu.  She was full of confidence and her engaging smile was a window to her character.  My first impression, however, was that I was talking to someone with the figure of an Olympic athlete.  Of course, given the work she does that should be expected.  She seemed to have youth on her side, so it really was a great surprise to know that she was 45 years old.  Thankfully she was just as surprise to learn that I am 69.

Chiharu was amused by my picture of her.  Hokkoku Newspaper Photo
Until a few years ago the oldest Ama working out of Wajima was 93.  Now the oldest is in her eighties.  The history of free-diving in Japan dates back some 400 years and there are still several areas where Ama are working, more or less in the same way that Chiharu and her colleagues do.

Given the nature of their work, it is easy to look upon the Ama as almost super-human but they are wives, girlfriends and mothers, living how millions of other women do in Japan.  When Chiharu is not diving she does some part-time work and also helps her mother, who makes the order-made wet suits.  After work when the ladies get together they talk about their husbands, children, boyfriends and even discuss the good places to dive and things to beware of.  “Can your work be dangerous?” I asked.

Not caught by an Ama!
“I had a shark come close to me once.  It was about a metre-and-a-half long and we just stared at each other as it passed by open-mouthed.  It soon swam away but to be on the safe side I rose to the surface and took refuge with my buddy.  Another time I looked up from what I was doing on the seabed to find a group of large tuna swimming round and round me at great speed”.

“Something most people don’t appreciate is how many sounds there are in the sea.  It’s not just the movement of the waves or the breaking of the surf.  The swell deep down moves rocks, moves in and out of openings in the formations creating sounds that can’t be heard anywhere else”,

It had been fascinating meeting Chiharu and perhaps someday I will have the opportunity of seeing her at work in the waters around Hagura-jima.  All I needed to complete my report was a photograph of her.  We went out onto the quay where the moored fishing boats made a suitable backdrop.  Two local newspaper reporters who were shadowing my visit to Noto at the time took the opportunity of photographing us too.  For me, Chiharu is an embodiment of two worlds.  History and legend are represented by the image of her going about her work off Hegura-jima, drifting effortlessly through the magically lit world beneath the waves like a mermaid from a storybook.  Reality is epitomised by her T-shirt and her dainty slip-on shoes.  Long may legend, history and reality exist side by side.

The websites below explain more about the work of the Ama.



Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright except for the image from the newspaper.

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  1. A fascinating article. Although I am familiar with the Ama through the Noh play of the same name, I had no idea that they were still in business. It would be interesting to go and see them at work

    James Ferner