The Ama Divers of Iwawada Japan

Guest blogger Ian McCann recently returned to Australia after assisting Dr Jun Kimura in his search for the wreck of the Manila galleon San Francisco (1609). Ian has written about his observations of the Ama divers of Iwawada to share with Heritage Detection Australia blog followers.

“As we pass through the breakwaters of the small fishing boat harbor at Iwawada several pairs of fins can be seen breaking the surface of the water.  These are the last of the Ama working around Iwawada and Onjuku. Floating alongside these free divers are pairs of body boards, strapped together and anchored to the seabed with a small stainless steel grapple anchor. Under the boards hang two large catch bags. The Ama put their harvest from the sea into these bags. They are currently collecting sazae (turban shell) and at the end of a hard day’s diving they have collected up to one hundred of these large delicacies. To conserve stocks, sazae can only be collected by licensed free divers.

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Ama divers at work Iwawada, Japan August 2016. Ian McCann image.

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Modern Ama divers bring their catch ashore at Iwawada. Ian McCann image.

Earlier in the week the local fishing co-operative had arranged for us to meet three of the retired Ama whose ages ranged from 86 to 89.  These women spent an hour telling us about their working lives and how they were concerned the trade of the  Ama  would soon cease to exist in the area.

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Retired Ama at Iwawada. Ian McCann image.

Old Ama and photos

Retired Ama diver at Iwawada, Japan August 2016. Ian McCann image.

The earliest written record of the Ama is from the poems the Man’yoshu, from around 759AD

‘So, until I see your loving face
that I long to look upon,
Like the pearls the fisher-maids
dive for in Nago Bay”

The Palace of Naniwa, whither often comes
our Sovereign, stands so near the ocean,
I see the little boats
In which the fisher-maids ride.’

Some social historians claim the Ama have been around for over 2000 years. It is known as a well paid profession, often earning seven times a local fisherman’s income. Once they were a wandering trade, moving around the coastline diving for the shellfish, lobster, octopus and pearls but now they only dive in set areas. Each fishing village has distinct boundaries where they can dive.

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Ama divers circa 1945. Yoshiyuki Iwase image.

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Ama divers circa 1962. Yoshiyuki Iwase image.

Until relatively recent times masks were made from copper and glass and shaped to fit a particular Ama. In the past they may well have developed the ability to see underwater similar to the Moken or sea gypsies of Thailand. Vision researcher Anna Gislen from the University of Lund in Sweden has found that with only one months training most children can see quite clearly underwater.  (see Superior Underwater Vision in a Human Population of Sea Gypsies in Anna Gislen, Marie Dacke, Ronald H.H Kröger, Maths Abrahamsson, Dan-Eric Nilsson, Eric J Warrant. Current Biology 2003).

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Ama masks in the collection of the Onjuku heritage museum. Ian McCann image.

Around Japan Ama diving practices vary but around Iwawada they mainly dived the shallow reefs using a sealed wooden cask as a float. The divers would launch themselves from the beach or rocks, pushing the cask under their body and propelling themselves with a paddling motion. Their catch bags would be attached to the floats and would dive up to four times a day resting in between, sometimes warming themselves around fires or huddled in small huts on the beach.

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Ama wooden float. In the Yoshiyuki Iwase collection. Ian McCann image.

If the divers ventured further out to sea they would collectively rent a fishing boat, carrying up to thirty Ama, but continue to work as a group. Their diving clothes also varied, before the 1940s they often dived in loin cloths only but they later wore shorts and small jackets.

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Ama retrieving a dive boat circa 1951. Yoshiyuki Iwase image.

Interest in the Ama increased after Yoshiyuki Iwase, the son of a local sake maker started taking photographs of the local Ama from the 1930s onwards. In his words ‘They carried the joys and sorrows of those living with the sea … I immersed myself in their world’.

In doing so Yoshiyuki Iwase  left behind a priceless photographic record of this remarkable group of women.”

Thank you to

The current and retired Ama of Iwawada

The staff of the Iwawada fishing cooperative

Dr Jun Kimura and the Japan Maritime Archaeology Project

The family of the late Yoshiyuki Iwase

The Onjuku Museum




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