The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

Diving With the Japanese Ama Divers

Last week's story started our travel to several Japanese villages to live and dive with the AmaSan breath-hold divers, the SeaWomen. It continues here.

The SeaWomen told me their stories. "I started when I was eight years old," one told me. "I gathered kelp and seaweed on the beach. As I got better and older, I could go further in the waters, and bring more food." None had any knowledge of Ama history before their own family's time, or of other Ama-San in other villages, nor did they care.

Almost none of the working AmaSan who I stayed and worked with, spoke any English. Friends interpreted, and through my amusing broken Japanese I asked them about their dive profiles - how deep they dived, for how long. Did they do deeper dives first or shallower. Did they have injuries from the pressure, the cold, did decompression bubbles form, did their heart rate change – many of the questions of the early studies. Many serious early studies of the Ama-San claimed to have measured and asked these same questions.

The Ama-San were uninterested. Staying deeper or longer is not what they measure, remember, or care about. The recurring answer was always about harvesting more kilos. Each was proud of how much she was able to gather diving unassisted (cachido diving), how many kilograms of food she hauled up to her husband waiting in the lonely boat (deeper depth funado diving), or that they dragged onto shore in baskets.

They enjoyed the time spent with the other SeaWomen between dives around the fires on the beach, without housework or being told what to do by the constraints of society. They told me stories of the sea, of love, and dragons, and magic.

A common image is the SeaWomen diving for pearls. The Ama didn't dive for pearls, but food. Before it was discovered how to artificially cultivate pearls, pearls were too rare to be counted on for a living. Kokichi Mikimoto of Japan financed development of cultured pearl science in the 1900's. Ama divers were hired to place and care for oysters in submerged beds. They didn't dive to bring them up. At Ise-Shima in the Mie Prefecture, the Mikimoto Pearl Museum teaches the generations about the development of cultured pearls, and as a tourist attraction, about the Ama-San, but this is not the real Ama diving.

We went to the Ama-San festival in Shirahama's Nojimazaki district on the tip of the Boso-Hanto Peninsula, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) southeast of Tokyo. After all-day festivities and prayers in a colorful, carnival atmosphere, they walked solemnly past applauding crowds into the chilly night sea and swam holding torches. It stirred the heart.

The AmaSan Japanese Diving Women
The Mermaid Stories

Japanese Ama Divers - Diving Naked

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Photo of the Ama festival © by Dr. Jolie Bookspan

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