Leilani

By Leilani

LifeBuzz Staff

These Mysterious Japanese Mermaids Have An Almost Superhuman Skill…

For two years, I lived in a rural town in Chiba prefecture. In the same region, about an hour and a half south, was a beach town called Onjuku. It was in this location that photographer Iwase Yoshiyuki, 1904-2001, captured a rare and intimate series of early to mid-20th century ama-san (sea women) - women who made their living through traditional free diving for seaweed, shellfish, sea urchin, and most famously, abalone. In the past, ama-san could be found in various regions throughout Japan.

These women dove up to 25 meters without any breathing apparatuses, relying on their own skills and breathing techniques to dive and resurface. Through vigorous practice, they learned to hold their breath for up to two minutes at a time, sometimes four. The most commonly held explanation for the dominance of women in the practice is that they have extra layers of body fat, enabling them to withstand the cold for much longer and produce a bigger catch. Ama-san were deeply revered, and the most talented were able to take their pick among the local men when it came time for marriage.

This type of sustainable fishing was popular among many communities because it prevented the problem of overfishing that often happens when new technology is introduced. However, new rules to prevent overfishing limited the diver's practice in some ways. For example, divers who used to be able to spend up to six hours in the water were limited to two. The pressure was on to find more abalone quickly.

There have been many changes since. In the past, the ama-san dove topless wearing only a fundoshi (loincloth) and a tenugui (bandana) but they now wear wet suits and diving masks, a switch normalized by the 1970s. The divers also adopted goggles shortly after they were introduced in the early 20th century. The tradition is dwindling due to the decline in abalone, the nation's aging population, and younger generations moving into the cities rather than staying in the villages. There are some women, many of them well into their fifties and sixties, who continue fighting to keep the ama legacy alive today.

See Iwase's Photographic Series of Ama Divers here:

In Japan, ama divers make a living free diving for food without any breathing apparatuses. Photographer Iwase Yoshiyuki captured this series of young ama-san on the Onjuku coast in southern Chiba.

In Japan, ama divers make a living free diving for food without any breathing apparatuses. Photographer Iwase Yoshiyuki captured this series of young ama-san on the Onjuku coast in southern Chiba.

Iwase Yoshiyuki

These early to mid-twentieth century photographs are considered iconic, because they're one of the last reminders of traditional ama beauty and labor.

These early to mid-twentieth century photographs are considered iconic, because they're one of the last reminders of traditional ama beauty and labor.

Iwase Yoshiyuki

The ama-san dove topless wearing only loincloths and bandanas. Modern ama-san use wet suits and diving masks.

The ama-san dove topless wearing only loincloths and bandanas. Modern ama-san use wet suits and diving masks.

Iwase Yoshiyuki

It was speculated that females were more successful as ama because of the extra layers of body fat that kept them warm in the cold water for longer periods of time.

It was speculated that females were more successful as ama because of the extra layers of body fat that kept them warm in the cold water for longer periods of time.

Iwase Yoshiyuki

The women were able to dive up to 25 meters easily and lasted in the water for up to 2-4 minutes.

The women were able to dive up to 25 meters easily and lasted in the water for up to 2-4 minutes.

Iwase Yoshiyuki

They were important to the community and paid handsomely for their hard work. During peak season, they made more in a few weeks than some men made in a year.

They were important to the community and paid handsomely for their hard work. During peak season, they made more in a few weeks than some men made in a year.

Iwase Yoshiyuki

The most skillful women often got first pick among the local men to take as their husbands.

The most skillful women often got first pick among the local men to take as their husbands.

Iwase Yoshiyuki

Those who know of the ama-san's long history - the tradition began approximately 2,000 years ago - hold a deep respect for the culture.

Those who know of the ama-san's long history - the tradition began approximately 2,000 years ago - hold a deep respect for the culture.

Iwase Yoshiyuki

Otomo no Yakamochi wrote a poem about a Hegura ama diver in 748. It is immortalized in Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry.

Otomo no Yakamochi wrote a poem about a Hegura ama diver in 748. It is immortalized in Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry.

Iwase Yoshiyuki

Due to a decline in abalone and an aging national population, we are seeing fewer and fewer ama divers.

Due to a decline in abalone and an aging national population, we are seeing fewer and fewer ama divers.

Iwase Yoshiyuki

However, there are still a few strong ama-san, most of them in their fifties and sixties, who remain committed to the practice today.

However, there are still a few strong ama-san, most of them in their fifties and sixties, who remain committed to the practice today.

Iwase Yoshiyuki

Sources: anthonylukephotography.blogspot, JPF, Messy Nessy Chic, United Nations University

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