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Japanese mermaids

Divers "ama" - fishing or tradition?

Japanese mermaids

There is a purely female (with rare exceptions) type of marine fishing. This is the prey of sedentary sea organisms by female divers. The work of divers for seafood is called the art of "ama".

The work of ama divers originated more than 2000 years ago. To this day, it has been preserved almost unchanged. Only special hooks for prying and separating mollusks from the rock substrate are now steel and not bone and wood. Everything else, including clothing, and often its absence, is the same.

It happens that men are divers. In some areas of Japan, their share reaches 20-25%. But in the whole country, this share is very small. And since this circumstance lowers the bar of romantic ideas about this art, the male role in diving is tried not to notice. But we will be objective, and we will not hush up the role of men in this matter.

For centuries "ama-san" have been harvesting the same types of marine organisms: from mollusks and echinoderms - abalone, sae (horned turbot), sea urchin, trepang, from crustaceans - Japanese lobster, from algae - gelidium, undaria, etc. Most The coveted prey is the abalone (abalone), which is the most expensive (some specimens, if caught by divers, cost $ 100 or more on the market). The extraction of this particular mollusk requires a lot of effort, since with its muscle it is very firmly attached to stones and rocks. In the old days - before the industrialization of pearl cultivation on offshore plantations - "ama" were "pearl seekers". Now this direction in the work of "ama" has more decorative than commercial character.

In the 17th and 19th centuries, the ama fishing industry was very important for the Japanese economy. Despite isolation from the outside world, foreign trade had to be developed. The port of Nagasaki, open to foreigners, was actively used for exporting agar made from agar-bearing algae to China and other countries. Algae at the indicated times could only be obtained by female divers. In the middle of the 19th century, the agar plant industry and agar production spread throughout Japan. Accordingly, the importance of the "ama" fishery was very great.

It is difficult to explain why the work of "ama" has been preserved for centuries and millennia. The following version looks quite convincing. First, this type of fishing is clearly localized. It developed and survived where in the coastal area accessible to swimmers there are sufficient stocks of the traditional ama species mentioned above. The presence of a permanent subject of labor creates the conditions for a permanent nature of labor.

Secondly, “ama” do not use special breathing devices, relying only on the physical and spiritual forces of the body, and cannot have a strong effect on the environment and the inhabitants of the coastal zone. And this allows maintaining ecosystems and biotopes in an equilibrium state. In addition, in recent years, even in these sparing types of fishing, restrictions on the seasons and the number of fishing days have been established. The subjective factor comes into force - the East Asian mentality, which includes respect for the memory of ancestors and the indisputable preservation of traditions.

Japanese researchers do not recall the fact that the "ama", having changed into diving suits with scuba diving several decades ago, blew up the reserves of those types of marine organisms that formed the basis of their existence. At the same time, it is known that at the end of the 19th century, the stocks of agar-bearing algae Gelidium were undermined due to the high demand for agar abroad and the desire for high profits in a short time by Japanese employers of ama divers for algae extraction.

However, the diving industry does exist. This method of catching benthic marine organisms exists (but in very small quantities) not only in Japan, but also in other countries. Including in Russia. In the Far East, sea urchins are hunted by diving, and their caviar is extremely highly valued in the Japanese market. At the same time, various technical advances are used that significantly increase human capabilities when working under water and, accordingly, the efficiency of harvesting marine organisms. In some cases, "Ama" "allow" themselves only a "wet" suit for diving.

Ama working methods

Descriptions of the working methods of ama divers, clothing or mining tools can be found in various Internet publications (as a rule, these are fragments of travel booklets and magazines on Japanese topics) and even in the famous book of free diver Jacques Maillol "Dolphin Man", translated into Russian. We preferred to turn to Japanese sources - to a collection of essays written from the words "ama" of advanced years from different regions of Japan, as well as to the results of Japanese cultural studies on this topic.

There are two most common types of ama fishing. The first is called "funado", the second is called "katido". The first means - people with a boat, the second - walkers (or marines on the seabed). There is another type of fishing for divers - "noriai", when boats are united in a group.

In the first type of fishing, "ama" works in tandem with her husband or partner (tomai-san). At the same time, the first is constantly on board the boat, controlling the situation and pulling out of the water a partner who finds it difficult to do this on her own, since she carries a load on her body for a quick and easy dive (diving in some cases can reach 20 meters). With a very short rise to the surface, the "ama" inhales through slightly parted lips with a whistle (this makes it easier to overcome the pressure difference in the water and on the surface), which is popularly called the "coastal flute".

Sometimes a few "amas" hire a boat and a strong man who monitors the safety of fishing and helps women divers in the work. In this case, one weight is used for all swimmers.

Each diver is connected to the boat by the so-called "rope of life" (inochi-zuna). The most dangerous thing is when the cable breaks or separates from the ama's body. Getting out of the water without assistance increases the time spent underwater, and the lungs may not be able to handle it. The fact that "ama" can stay under water for two, three minutes, and sometimes even more does not matter. The time for stopping breathing should be maximized for the search and extraction of marine organisms.

Particularly dangerous are areas of the seabed with the remains of sunken ships. Metal projections can easily cut or cut the cable of life. Therefore, despite the accumulation in such areas of the desired mollusk abalon, "ama" try to avoid such places.

Often, ama wear white clothes, even if they are wearing a wet suit. The white spot is clearly visible to the tomai-san underwater, so it is easier to ensure the work of the divers and their safety.

In the second type of fishing, the "ama" -catchers are united in a group and fish close to the coast without the help of a vessel. This type of fishing is also called "okedo" - that is, the extraction of marine organisms using a wooden tub "oke", where the catch is added. The bucket also serves as a reference point on the surface of the water, and the "rope of life" is also connected to it.

The duration of work in the water of divers varies depending on the temperature of the water. In winter, the fishery is usually closed. In spring and autumn, women work in the water for 2 to 3 hours. In summer, working hours are increased to 5 hours. Even very experienced divers are not capable of more. Also, the length of time in the water depends on age, experience of "ama" and other factors.

Harmony with nature, the closest connection of “ama” life with the marine environment helps to overcome the exhausting nature of hard work. Cases are described when "ama-san" gave birth to children immediately after working under water, barely leaving the shore. It is clear that this was in the past and not from a good life. Before the war, the abalone mollusk did not bring as much income as it did during the years of rapid development of the Japanese economy, when the demand for delicately harvested marine organisms increased significantly, and the market price for them also increased several times against the background of the increased purchasing power of the population.

I must say that such an art of divers for seafood delicacies - and what "ama" mines are the real delicacies - exists in the Republic of Korea, in particular on the island of Jeju. It sounds differently - something like "henyo", but the meaning is the same - women of the sea. And this does not change the essence of the matter. Hard work, which is very difficult to replace with industrial types of fishing. Traces of these types of fishing can be traced in the ancient history of other continents, but only survived in East Asia.

Ama art is part of Japanese tradition

The first mentions of Japanese seafood divers are found in ancient Chinese chronicles (in the Japanese sound "Gishi Wadzin Den") and the 8th century Japanese poetry anthology "Manyoshu". These sources not only mention the existence of divers, but also provide some information about the peculiarities of their life and appearance. The deciphering of ancient texts shows that the entire body of the ancient "ama" was covered with tattoos. The tattoos were supposed to protect divers in the water from sharks and other dangerous inhabitants of the sea. During the work, divers had to remove all clothing that hid protective tattoos.

The custom of applying tattoos remained valid until recently, as well as the rule - to dive in the nude.

In Japan, the number of ama divers who live in this type of fishing and in accordance with Japanese fishing legislation have fishing rights and registration, according to research by the Mie Prefecture Education Committee, is 1800 people. Taking into account those divers who fish from time to time, their number rises to 2170. The most numerous compact settlements are located in the city of Toba and the Sima County of this prefecture. But there are specialized ama fisheries in many other areas of Japan. As a rule, depending on the location of these traditional crafts, their specialization differs. Now all the "amas" are united in cooperatives.

The number of "ama" is gradually decreasing. Over the past 20 years, the number of "ama" has decreased by half (Table). This is due to a decrease in the income of divers. The average age of divers is also constantly increasing. The habitat of aquatic organisms that harvest "ama" is deteriorating. The collection of abalone by divers - the main collection object - has been reduced by five times. In order to preserve this distinctive tradition, the authorities of Mie Prefecture in 2013 developed a program to revitalize the life of coastal villages and increase the income of female divers.

The annual income of modern "amas" is about 1,0 million yen (about 10 thousand dollars) per year. It is almost impossible to live on this money alone in modern Japan. To increase the income of the “ama”, the coastal revitalization program provides for the formation of fishing grounds, an increase in abalone reserves through the settlement of larvae, the introduction of technologies for processing little used and unused algae. Such support should stabilize the production as well as the traditional “ama” way of life. Funding for these programs is provided by the state budget for the fisheries industry in Japan. The budget is primarily aimed at improving the economic life of coastal villages. But in this case it is safe to speak and maintain traditions.


Change in the number of "ama" after 1931

Year survey

Number of persons


12 913


10 128


9 320


17 611


11 042


10 609


9 134


4 213


2 174

According to the Maritime Museum of Japan and the Japan Fisheries Department.

Virtually always the collection of sea products, divers are combined with agriculture, sometimes with the service sector (usually tourism). Depending on the natural conditions of a specific locality, the number of days given to the marine fishery varies greatly. So, in the vicinity of the Toba area, the number of days of sea fishing ranges from 10 to 110 days per year. In the vicinity of the town of Sima, the importance of marine fishing is higher and ranges from 40 to 286 days per year.

In a number of localities, the centuries-old festivals of divers have become a kind of regulator of the ama fishing, as, for example, in Yamaguchi prefecture on the coast of the Sea of ​​Japan. The ancient settlement "Ama" is located here in Yuya Bay. During the obligatory weekend, divers visit temples, where they perform rituals with the wishes of a good sea harvest and the preservation of reserves of mined objects. Such days are becoming traditional instructions on the rules of catching (do not catch shellfish smaller than the fishing measure, etc.).

The threat to craft, which for millennia has turned into tradition and art, also creates a gradual aging of divers. The predominant age of most divers of the Mie prefecture is 70-80 years.

Japan and South Korea dispute the right to register a female marine fishery "ama" with UNESCO

The South Korean Agency for Cultural Property has decided to submit an application to the UNESCO Commission to register the culture of Jeju divers from Jeju Island as an intangible heritage of human culture. Registration of hanyeo culture with UNESCO may take place in 2015.

Japanese relevant bodies also intend to apply for registration of their culture in UNESCO. The way of mining from the sea bottom of organisms by women-divers, turned into an original culture, exists only in Japan and the Republic of Korea.

According to the media of the Republic of Korea, on the island of Jeju, the number of divers during the period of maximum development of this type of fishery was 30000 people. Currently, their number does not exceed 4500 people.

In the Republic of Korea, the haenyo craft is considered natively Korean and is very critical of Japan's intentions to also register this type of marine fishing as a common humanity. True, the Korean written sources of the Middle Ages date the emergence of the haenyo craft around the beginning of the 17th century. It is stated that in the 17th and 18th centuries (Chson era), Korean divers supplied seafood to the table of the royal family.

In the Japanese prefecture of Mie, more than half of all divers registered in the country are engaged in this type of fishing - about 1000 people. The city of Toba and Shima County, Mie Prefecture, where the ama type of fishing is highly developed, since 2009, they have exchanged with fellow craftsmen from South Korea and there is an annual Ama Summit. At the 2010 summit, a joint decision was made by divers from Japan and the Republic of Korea to submit a single application for registration of this type of fishery with UNESCO. The reason for the rejection of the joint application to UNESCO in favor of separate national applications lies in the deterioration of the climate of political relations between the two countries. This is also due to the increased national ambitions in this regard.

Japanese-South Korean exchanges between representatives of the "trade-culture" "ama-haenyo", as well as between specialists - culturologists and historians of the two countries continue to this day. Now it is perceived as something special. But before World War II, Korean haenyo constantly came to the Japanese island of Shikoku to collect agar-bearing algae gelidium, which was normal. Also, at the end of the 19th century, "ama" went to the latrine trades on the Korean Peninsula. Even earlier, Japanese and Korean entrepreneurs created brigades from henyo, with whom they were sent to the fields in Japan and China. In pre-revolutionary times, such brigades appeared in the Russian Primorye, of course, only in the short summer months.

At the beginning of the 20th century, “ama” from Mie Prefecture were sent to the latrine trades in Korea from March to September. They crossed on a small wooden ship with the help of oars and sails. The entire crew, including the "ama" and assistants, consisted of 15 people. During these "expeditions" the ship became the home for everyone. The sail and mast turned into a roof over the boat, in which everyone slept.

Hundreds and thousands of scientific and popular publications have been written about the art and traditions of "ama" in Japan. "Ama" is without exaggeration the cultural heritage of the Japanese people, at least by age. This dictated the close attention of Japanese researchers to this topic. And this topic is very much in line with the global problem of humanity - to live in harmony with nature. In this sense, the “ama” phenomenon, like the Korean “hyenyo” divers, goes far beyond the cultural values ​​of only one nation.

Ama's lifestyle, philosophy and worldview are closely related to the sea. This connection is inseparable and harmonious. "Ama" is a Japanese mermaid, but not fabulous, but real.

The number of "ama" is steadily decreasing. This is not only due to economic conditions. The main thing is that their natural habitat, with which they are inextricably linked, is gradually being lost. These are not only mountains of plastic waste that pollute the coastal zone, but also shores taken into concrete, accessible to idle tourists and onlookers. However, the unequal struggle for the preservation of the original fishing industry with a 2000-year history continues.

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