Mermaid-women, this is the expression that could best characterize the Japanese “ama” fisherwomen. A profession in the process of disappearing like many old and artisanal trades, physically demanding, poorly paid, which does not attract the young generation to take over. Global warming also impacts the activity of clusters. Mr Japanization had the opportunity to meet Kimiyo Hayashi, Ama from the Shima region. An unforgettable moment which he shares with you.

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The Japanese archipelago is renowned for its rich culture, whose singularity is to have succeeded in transforming itself into a monster of modernity, while preciously preserving in his daily life an incredible number of traditions. Among these, some unfortunately remain threatened with disappearance. This is particularly the case of Ama (in Japanese 海 女: “sea” and “woman”: the women of the sea), these naked goddesses who snorkel and probe the ocean in search of seaweed and seafood. If the equipment of these professional divers has since evolved for reasons of health and safety – from the simple bandana on the head accompanied by a loincloth with rope at the waist connecting them to the boat, followed by the long dress of white fabric and from the mask, to the current neoprene suit – the traditional practice has lasted for more than 2000 years, a true cultural heritage of which we find written traces from the 8thth century. Unfortunately, there is a great risk that it will disappear soon …

Artist: 清 広 Title: 海 女 (Ama)

Diving from a boat or alone from the beach, this requires sacred physical abilities when you know that you need to hold your breath for at least a minute on each descent, in order to be able to harvest abalone, oysters, horned turbans and other shells that lurk 10 meters at the bottom of the water. “When I started this profession 50 years ago, I even went down to 15 meters! “ tells us with a big smile Kimiyo Hayashi, “It really depends on each person”. At 66, this jovial and always smiling woman is ama in the Shima area, just like her mother was before. She explains to us that this independent profession is always exercised until a very old age (in her community, the average is 67 years old, with a range going from 19 to 84 years old), and traditionally always by women. The reason ? Formerly the clothes that female divers wore throughout the year (amagi) were very simple, and “Women have more fat than men to resist the cold of the ocean! “ she tells us. Very recently, however, with the transition to modern suits, a few courageous specimens of men have appeared ama. They can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

But if these Japanese sirens remind us of something in the rest of the world (beyond the fictionalized character ofama of Kissy Suzuki, romance of James Bond), it is becausethey are often associated with pearl culture, in which they played an essential role. At the end of the 19th century, Mikimoto Kōkichi had called on their expertise in the invention of his method of pearl cultivation: the role of ama of this Japanese entrepreneur was fish for the oysters, insert the core that produces the pearl, and then place them carefully in the seabed. They also sometimes moved oysters from one place to another, to protect them from dangers such as typhoons: the success of the transplant depends on the sea conditions. On the other side of the coin, with the development of modern pearl cultivation techniques, there is no longer any need for ama : their number has therefore started to drop drastically …

And as technology progressed, fishing techniques ama saw themselves threatened : should we give in to the “sirens of industrialization” too? Focus on productivity or protect ancestral traditions? Communities of ama preferred to keep a balance: equip themselves with modern wetsuits, of course, but opt ​​for sustainability, by establishing rules to fight against overfishing and its harmful effects on the ecosystem.

Thus in Shima and Toba, a region south of Mie prefecture which has the largest number ofama from the country, the areas in which they can dive have been strictly defined, as well as their working hours (3 to 4 hours per day) and, for each species, the fishing seasons and minimum size / weight restrictions. Kimiyo teaches us thatit has the obligation to release abalone less than 10 cm into the water, or even horned turbans weighing less than 60 g, for the sake of protecting species. Within her community, each diver works in shifts of 1:30 in the morning and 1:30 in the afternoon: “It’s more efficient for us to dive several times, to bring back more fishing, because we have limited time. “

A normal day for Kimiyo

8h: Kimiyo goes to theamagoya (the cabin she shares with a few others ama), to prepare the fire and change. Fire is vital for protection after a freezing dive.

Photo: Mr Japanization

9h: Departure for the sea.

9:30 am: First dive of the day.

11am: After 1h30 of diving, Kimiyo returns to the cabin to warm up, have lunch and chat around the fire with his comrades.

1:15 p.m .: Second dive!

As far as the eye can see, pearl farms.

2:45 p.m .: It’s already time to go home. Kimiyo collects all the products she has caught during the morning and afternoon, gets changed, and can finally snack and rest warm at theamagoya with the other divers. They share their experiences “Of the day of fishing, of the profession in general, but also of life”, like all work colleagues in the world! These moments are very important for Kimiyo, because it is here that the knowledge of a ama to each other, for generations.

At the end of the day : The ama not being allowed to sell their catch directly, they bring the fruit of their labor to the market to sell it to wholesalers who, in turn, auction it off, often much more expensive. This system does not bother Kimiyo, however, because in this way she is sure that the wholesalers buy her everything, every day. After this last step, his day ofama is finally over!

Despite the many efforts of the communities of ama To preserve local resources, Kimiyo has found that since she started this craft, the amount of shellfish has dropped dramatically. According to his observations, not only overfishing but also global warming. “The water temperature is rising and the sea is getting deeper. There used to be rocks, which have now disappeared. It is more difficult to meet the species that were usually found in this rocky region. Conversely, some species that lived in the warmer waters of Okinawa now go back to here. “

Same story with the Oyama, a family of local lobster fishermen. “Local species have changed”, reveals one of the two sons, Yunki-san. He now sees rare and colorful Okinawan fish, as well as octopus. “Because of the warming of the water”, he continues, “There is less algae, so not enough food for the lobsters and all the seafood that feeds on them. “ The pollution of the ocean, which was once translucent in this region, should not have improved this alarming situation either. The world has industrialized and you can see the traces everywhere.

Photo: Mr Japanization

Her job is also threatened, like Kimiyo-san’s: before, she could find abalone for 80 to 90 days a year, now only 30 days, “Which is also a pity for us because it is the shell that sells the most expensive …” In addition, the market which was once open every day is now closed on Tuesday and Saturday: these are two days of the week when the divers can no longer work.

Beyond the reduction in fishing, and at the same time the income of ama, global warming also results in rising sea levels and therefore the increase in the diving distance, explains Kimiyo, which makes his working conditions and access to certain areas more difficult.

For all these practical and economic reasons, ama are disappearing. From more than 17,000 in the 1950s, there are now less than 2,000 across the country, including 600 in the region of Shima and Toba alone. The profession no longer arouses a vocation. Why would young girls want to submit to so many physical and social constraints, when they can live a comfortable existence in the city? Kimiyo-san wonders, who also understands their choice.

Kimiyo teaches us with regret that she will be the fourth and latest generation of ama from his family : her only daughter works in Osaka and will not take up the torch.

If the younger generations are not seduced, there are however some new recruits: Kimiyo knows several women who left their original profession to become ama after 50 years. “There is no retirement age to be an ama, which allows you to work longer. ” In a country where women are generally taken over as housewives, the life of a ama is also a strong symbol of a form of taking liberty on a patriarchal society.

Photo: Mr Japanization

Still others want to make this profession known, so that the tradition does not die out, and Kimiyo is obviously part of it. When she’s not diving she cooks the seafood she caught for visitors to the region, by transmitting to them orally the rich history of ama and all the culture that surrounds it. With a bit of a dynamic woman like her, we can well hope that the legacy of the last sirens of the sea will never be completely buried! The curious are elsewhere invited to take a detour in the municipality of Shima accessible from Kyoto. A touching experience that we are not ready to forget.

Practical information :

To meet Kimiyo in the amagoya where she serves seafood: Ama Hut Satoumian (海 女 小屋 体 験 施 設 さ と う み 庵)

To find out more about pearl culture: the small village of the pearl, Shinju no Sato (真珠 工房 真珠 の 里)

For a guided bike tour of Shima, including the two locations above: Ise-Shima Bicycle Journey

Kimiyo-san presenting a gigantic abalone shell, unlike any other. Photo: Mr Japanization

Mr Japanization

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