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FEATURE: Japan’s “ama” divers struggle to survive as incomes plummet

Yoshino Uemura came late to the world of female “ama” divers, taking the plunge in her 40s. But now, over two decades later, she feels there is no time to lose if her chosen profession is to survive for future generations.

Clad in wetsuits, ama divers submerge to great depths without air tanks to gather abalone, seaweed and other seafood, and sometimes pearls. They exist only in Japan and South Korea, but in the profession’s Japanese heartland of Mie Prefecture, it is dying out.

Surveys show the number of divers in the cities of Toba and Shima have plummeted to fewer than 10 percent of the 1949 figure.

Supplied photo shows ama diver Yoshino Uemura in Toba, Mie Prefecture, in March 2021. (Kyodo)

The main culprit appears to be environmental deterioration caused by rising seawater temperatures, which reduce catches. The resulting low incomes make it exceedingly difficult to sustain a living.

Efforts are underway to improve the marine environment and secure new sources of revenue for divers, but there appears to be no silver bullet. Some locals are concerned that the culture of ama divers could cease to exist in generations to come.

Uemura still vividly recalls her first professional dive at age 43. “Crystal clear water, seaweed growing everywhere, fish swimming vigorously…it was just as beautiful as if I had been swimming in an aquarium tank. I still can’t forget it,” Uemura, now 69, said.

Although her mother-in-law was an ama, her family opposed her career choice because, in a profession that dates back thousands of years in the central Japan prefecture, most women begin dives in their 20s.

“‘Why now?’ they’d ask me. But I love the ocean,” Uemura said.

It was a turbulent start. In her early dives, Uemura was often tossed about by waves and even cracked her ribs when her body was slammed against rocks.

While Ama divers themselves take particular care not to overfish marine resources by sticking to self-imposed regulations, Uemura is anxious about the future.

Supplied photo shows ama diver Yoshino Uemura in Toba, Mie Prefecture, central Japan, in March 2021. (Kyodo)

A few years ago, harvesting wakame became impossible. And without wakame, the number of fish that live in the seaweed beds will decline, too. She is concerned that “catches will not continue for her children’s and grandchildren’s generations.”

According to studies by the Toba Sea-Folk Museum and Mie University, in 2022, the number of confirmed ama divers in Toba and Shima fell to 514, the lowest since 1949, the year the survey began, when there were over 6,000.

In 2010, the number dropped below 1,000 for the first time. Most ama divers are now in their 60s or 70s, with the oldest being 88.

“A decline in incomes due to a change in the marine environment is accelerating the lack of successors,” said Mai Ishihara, the museum’s director general.

Yoshino Uemura (L) chats with a fellow ama diver in Toba, Mie Prefecture, central Japan, in February 2023. (Kyodo)

But neither ama nor fishery cooperatives are standing idly by. Last year, Uemura and others participated in diving activities to eliminate a species of long-spined sea urchin that is destroying kelp forests in the area.

The increase in the creatures that overgraze on kelp is believed to cause underwater moonscapes to form, known as urchin barrens. But the ama’s activities are helping put a stop to seaweed decline.

Kaori Arai, 39, who quit her office job and moved to Shima from Osaka Prefecture to become a diver in 2014, said, “If the marine environment improves, the number of ama divers will naturally increase.”

In 2017, the central government designated the ama fishing method of Toba and Shima as an important intangible folk cultural asset. Two years later, Toba and Shima were recognized as a Japan Heritage Site by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

At Satoumian in Shima, a restaurant modeled after an ama hut where the women customarily rest after their dives, ama divers grill seafood in front of customers.

Satoumian has been favorably received by ama, as it gives them a way to earn money even when rough sea conditions make diving impossible.

In 2010, the Miegaiwan Fisheries Cooperative Association in Shima began instructing aspiring ama at a diving “cram school” and provided the women with housing.

However, the association has stopped ama recruitment since it cannot guarantee their earnings due to the decline in marine catches.

“To preserve ama culture for future generations, not only ama divers themselves, but government authorities and fishery cooperatives must devise the best way to cooperate with each other,” the museum’s Ishihara said.

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