These Mysterious Japanese Mermaids Have An Almost Superhuman Skill…

Culture |

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.

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:


Iwase Yoshiyuki
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