Ama, the last Mermaids of Japan

During the summer of 2013 I visited my boyfriend who was working in Saitama (north of Tokyo). Every morning he used to leave our apartment at 8.00 o’clock to go to the office and it was time for me to watch the NHK drama Ama-chan.

Every six months NHK (the Japanese national television) releases a new drama which is broadcasted every morning at 8.00 in 15 minutes episodes and it is usually extremely popular.

ama_chan

After a few days in Japan I found myself waiting every morning for the opening song and still today sometimes I murmur the theme to myself.  Recently it came to my mind again and I watched some episodes online. In short it is the story of a girl born and raised in Tokyo who goes back to her mother’s village and decides to become an Ama.

ama_mermaids_japan_10

Ama are the last Japanese mermaids. Their name is written with the kanji -umi (sea) and -onna (woman) and they are brave women who free dive in the cold ocean waters to prey on shellfish and seaweed.

ama_mermaids_11

ama_mermaids_japan_1

Their story is really fascinating and inspiring so I made some research.

Ama existed in Japan since many centuries ago, they are mentioned in the Man’Yoshu, the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry written in the 8th century, and they are also portrayed in some ukiyoe woodblock prints.

ama_ukiyoe_2

ama_ukiyoe_1

Today the few Ama who still practice this antique job use rubber wet suits and diving fins but traditionally they used to dive naked wearing only a white loincloth around their waist and a bandana to hold their hair to be free in their movements.

ama_mermaids_japan_9

ama_mermaids_japan_7

They used special techniques to hold their breath up to 2 minutes and dive as deeply as 25 meters. There were also some men among the Ama but by far more women because they believe that their body fat is distributed more evenly protecting them from the cold water.

ama_mermaids_japan_8

ama_mermaids_japan_6

The largest number of Ama currently active is in Toba, Mie Prefecture where around 800 woman still dive to catch especially abalones. Inside abalones sometimes there are natural black pearls and Ama where also famous because they used to take care of the cultivated pearl of Mikimoto Pearls.

ama_mermaids_japan_2

ama_mermaids_japan_5

Stunning photos of Ama have been taken around 1920 by Iwase Yoshiyuki who took pictures of Ama during their activities but also sensual and suggestive portraits.

ama_mermaids_japan_3

ama_mermaids_japan_4

Trivia: one last curiosity about Ama in pop culture, Ama appear also in the 007 movie You Live Twice. The Japanese actress Mie Hama is Kissy Suzuki a Japanese spy and Ama diver who is also the only bond girl to bear James’s Bond child.

ama_james_bond

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.