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