Ise Shima's Ama Divers

You may recognize Mie Prefecture as the home of Ise Jingu, Japan’s main Shinto shrine. But this year, the Ise Shima area is taking center stage and hosting the G7 Summit in May. 
Aerial View of Ise Shima -- Photo by Michael Lam
The arrival of the G7 Summit is an excellent opportunity for greater awareness of Mie Prefecture's natural beauty and unique coastal culture. Ise Jingu Shrine, the traditions of Toba’s sea folk, Ise Shima National Park, fisheries, the pearl farming industry and other tourist theme parks and attractions are all on display. Mie is expecting to benefit from the G7 to the tune of 13 billion yen, mainly from increased tourism. Many attractions and facilities were upgraded over winter, including providing information in English, Chinese and Korean.
The Ise Shima coastline offers some intriguing places to explore unique local sea folk traditions. You can do this while enjoying the seafood and natural beauty on offer around Ise-Shima National Park. Ise Shima National Park was the first park in Japan to be registered as a national park after World War II. This park will mark its 70th anniversary on November 20, 2016. Coupled with the G7 Summit, this event marks a significant milestone for the area. 
Ise Shima’s Ama Divers
Historical Ama Divers at Ise -- Photo Courtesy of the Toba Sea-Folk Museum
One of the area's unique attractions is the ama, traditional divers, famous for collecting seafood and pearls. In Japan, this practice has been largely undertaken by women. The kanji for "ama diver" is written using two Japanese characters meaning “ocean woman.”  The tradition of diving in the ocean to collect seafood is thought to have begun over 5,000 years ago during the Jomon Period.  Mie is one of only two places in the world where you can learn in depth about the tradition of ama diving. The other is South Korea.
The Ise Shima Peninsula apparently has the highest concentration of ama-style divers -- about 800 -- with the total throughout Japan being around 2,000. However, the vast number of these traditional divers is now decreasing due to age, health issues and fewer successors willing to keep up with the challenging lifestyle dive-fishing presents. Steps are being made to register ‘ama culture’ as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Ekimaeshotengai has a Restaurant run by a Former Ama Diver -- Photo by Michael Lam
I had a chance to learn more about ama culture on a recent family trip to Ise Shima. At the beginning of our trip we visited a row of stores next to JR Toba Station called Ekimae Shotengai. A former ama diver runs one of the shops. From her attitude and demeanor we could sense she had seen some hard days during her life. The shop's name is "Amanomise" which literally means "ama diver’s shop".
The stores typically feature various live seafood caught by the ama. The seafood includes awabi (abalone), sazae (turban shell) and sometimes uni (sea urchin) and Ise-ebi (lobster). We sat down and ordered various live seafood from the menu. The owner opened, prepared and grilled the seafood for us.
Preparing and Grilling Seafood on the Spot -- Photo by Michael Lam
We ate our delicious lunch while listening to the owner lament that not many customers came to the shop. I asked her if she still fished. Sadly, she stopped diving eight years ago due to health issues. She could not remember exactly when she started fishing. However, she had started young as a part of her family's tradition. She explained that her profession was a difficult one, only undertaken by those hard of character and mind. Ama diving is certainly not an occupation from which to make a comfortable living. 
After finishing lunch, my curiosity was not satisfied. We decided to visit the Toba Sea-Folk Museum to find out more about the ama. 
Learning About Ama at the Toba Sea-Folk Museum
The Toba Sea-Folk Museum Explains All About the Ama Diver Culture -- Photo by Michael Lam
Here I learned that dive fishing undertaken by the ama women is indeed a hard and strenuous profession. This method of dive fishing is done in two styles. The first or kachido style is done by groups of women who fish shallow depths up to 5-8 metres.
The second style is typically done by a husband-and-wife team on a totoakabune ‘papa mama boat’. This is called funado style and allows women divers to reach further depths up to 10-15 metres. Women dive in 50-second intervals taking one breath and use weights to drag themselves down to the depths. During each ‘50-second battle’ divers gather as many shellfish as they can before returning to the surface. One fishing session in the cold waters may last up to 60 minutes. 
Some divers lose up to 10 or more kilograms during a fishing season due to the strenuous nature of the work. Ama divers look after daily family chores -- making breakfast for their children before sending them to school, farming and then going to sea to fish.
At the Toba Sea-Folk Museum, you can view a documentary with English subtitles showing the divers' daily lives. One aspect of ama life depicted in the film, is the ama goya fishing hut where women gather after diving to rest and relax.
Ama Diver Photo Montage at the Toba Sea-Folk Museum -- Photo by Michael Lam
The population in rural and coastal areas in Japan is gradually declining due to decreased economic activity and a falling and ageing population. This decline is particularly evident with the ama divers. Their way of life is not being carried on by successive generations who move to urban areas for better job prospects. Many sea-folk cultural traditions and sea rituals related to sea safety normally maintained by the community are also at risk.
Local authorities and residents hope that an increasing number of tourists in the wake of the G7 Summit, both local and overseas, will provide greater activity and opportunities for the residents to display Mie’s unique local ama diver culture. This activity will in turn help to preserve their traditions and make remaining or returning to the area an attractive proposition. Can the future of the ama divers be preserved and their traditions passed on to the next generation? Hopefully, with the world coming to their doorstep -- and a potential UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage listing -- this unique slice of history will survive. 
 Check out our Mie prefectural page and start to plan your trip! 

Michael Lam