Tsuruga, Fukui Pref. – With the number of traditional “ama” female divers declining nationwide, their elderly ranks have stepped up efforts to recruit younger divers and promote their products as a formal brand to make the occupation more financially rewarding.
The time and effort put into landing their catches makes them “taste better,” said Nayomi Oi, a diver in Sakai, Fukui Prefecture, as she spread out seaweed she pulled from the Sea of Japan to dry.
At 56, she is the youngest of the 16 women diving in the district. The oldest is 89.
Oi, who manages a store selling surfboards and other surfing equipment, started diving seven years ago after undergoing breast cancer surgery. She said she had long wished to become an ama and wanted to live a life without regrets.
Oi harvests seaweed starting in late April, and abalone and turban shells in June. During the fishing season, she wakes up at 4 a.m. daily to check the sea conditions.
“The ocean gives me new discoveries every day, and I am having such a good time diving,” she said.
Female divers have been in the public spotlight since NHK started to air the drama “Ama-chan” in April.
But most of the regions known for female divers are running short on successors.
In 2010, there were 2,174 female divers across Japan, compared with about 17,000 in 1956, with the average age exceeding 60, according to the Toba Sea-Folk Museum in Toba, Mie Prefecture.
Fukui Prefecture is certainly no exception: It once had 2,000 ama but now has just 70.
Yoshikata Ishihara, 75, director of the museum, said the plunge was caused by the gradual expansion of different occupations in Japan.
But it is also being caused by the dwindling supply of marine products, which is destablizing the divers’ income.
To stem a further decline in ama culture, Mie Prefecture, famous for its pearl farming industry and the nation’s largest ama population (exceeding 900 divers), organized the first Ama Forum in 2009.
With divers also present from South Korea, believed to be the only country outside Japan where female diving is a viable vocation, the forum declared that it would aim to have the ama industry designated by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage.
In the latest move, the Mie prefectural education committee established Japan’s first ama preservation groups in the cities of Toba and Shima in May.
But Oi herself has also made efforts to preserve the occupation and its culture in her own way.
She said she believes that if divers can earn enough to provide for themselves, younger generations will be more interested in the work.
To help create such a system, Oi develops and sells “tsukudani” (seaweed stalk) and turban shells cooked in soy sauce, in collaboration with a long-established store in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district.
She also holds workshops in which participants can learn about divers, and organizes events at elementary schools to get children interested in diving by having them use bodyboards during swimming classes.
A fisheries association in Minami, Tokushima Prefecture, is slated to offer women aged 18 to 40 trial diving lessons in July and August.
“We would be happy if our activity helps more and more women become ama,” Oi said.