Federico Borella Photojournalist
Women of the sea
In Japanese, “Ama” means “women of the sea”, and this name is referred to Japanese pearls divers who strike the magination of artists, writers and poets for more than two thousand years, becoming protagonists of fantastic and evocative stories.
It is surprising to discover that nowadays, these elderly mermaids wich median age is 70 years, practice this activity like in the past: Ama dive holding their breath, without oxygen tanks, but only with a mask, and they catch shellfish and seaweeds with bare hands.
During the free-diving, which arrives at 30 meters into cold waters, Ama use a special technique to hold their breath for up to 2 minutes at a time, and they repeat it about 60 times each round.
When Ama divers come to surface, they make a particular sound called “Ama isobue”, often translated as “mermaids singing”, which is a whistle produced by hyperventilation.
They all have strong lung, they start to practice from childhood, and that’s why a lot of Ama are still in activity at the age of 80. Many divers manage the “Ama-hut”, or “Amagoya”, coastal huts used for restoration of typical sea products caught during diving.
The Ama practicing today in the entire Japan, are less than two thousand, most of them live in the region of Ise-Shima, along Toba bay in the Mie Prefecture. Their image is a symbol of the region itself, so that the Prefecture has nominated Ama to Unesco as Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The entire Ama culture in fact, is going to disappear: numbers have reduced so drastically that there are now fewer than 2,000 practicing — 8,000 fewer than in their post-WWII heyday.
Few young Japanese women want to preserve this tradition, like Aiko Ohno, 37, one of the youngest professional Ama divers in Japan, pictured in this reportage.
In the next 20 years the younger generation must keep diving to preserve the tradition, but few young Japanese women see the benefits. The seafood trade isn’t as lucrative as it once was, and jobs in Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo are more appealing.