The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

The AmaSan Japanese Diving Women

My husband Paul and I had trained in the martial arts together since our teens. Years later, we were both black belts, teaching martial arts. One day I asked Paul what was his life dream. He told me he wanted to train in Japan. I found work there teaching at a medical school, getting the chance to do some interesting comparative orthopedics, found a place to stay with people we had once helped, and arranged to train at the Japan Karate Association, the JKA. Eleven days after arriving, we suddenly had no more place to stay, and were standing on the street needing to immediately speak more Japanese than karate and medical words.

We landed on our feet, getting a small apartment in northern Tokyo, and training daily. We were invited to the training camp of a Japanese living treasure, and left our little place to head south.

After the training camp ended, we traveled in the coastal areas of the renowned Diving Women of Japan. I had heard of them since I was very small, studied them in graduate physiology classes, and wanted to know if the stories were true.

We were invited to stay with the Ama diving women in several villages. "Ama" literally means "sea woman" in Japanese. When you spell 'ama' you use two kanji characters, 'sea' and 'woman.' In Japan, they are more properly called Ama-San; "San" is an honorific suffix. The Japanese have long held these professional diving women in high regard for their hard-working life.

The SeaWomen have breath-hold dived in chilly waters for perhaps thousands of years to harvest shellfish, seaweed, and other food. They were the major providers for their villages. At one time, the Ama-San were the world's largest fleet of commercial divers. Now there are few left. The youngest are in their 50's. The oldest working divers are now 70 and 80 years old, and even older. The daughters move to the cities, not wanting to train in the cold waters with their mothers to become Ama-San. Soon there may be no more.

In the West in the 1960's and early 70's, there was a sudden scientific interest in studying the mammalian dive reflex. Many studies centered on the Ama. Scientists wanted to study how deep they dived and for how long, to measure slowing of heart rate and redistribution of blood from limbs to the core, representative of the dive reflex. Studies were also initiated to estimate oxygen saturation and decompression stress. It was often conceded that the real interest in the Ama was because they dived nearly naked.

Next week - Diving With the Japanese Diving Women.

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About the Author


Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.