SHIMA, MIE PREF. – Mieko Kitai takes a huge gulp of air as she surfaces from the clear, blue waters off the Pacific coast with a large abalone in her hand.
Now in her 70s, the dive — with nothing more than a mask — does not get any easier and the pickings get slimmer with every passing year.
But she and her fellow “ama,” which roughly translates as “sea woman,” reap the fruits of the ocean in a way that has been practiced in parts of Japan for thousands of years.
“Finally, I got one,” the free diver said, climbing aboard the boat and pulling the mask off her weather-beaten face.
Kitai is one of a dozen ama who gathered on a recent sunny day in Shima, Mie Prefecture.
They chatter loudly from excitement and necessity — some have suffered hearing loss from the pressure of the depths — as they rub their masks with slimy algae to prevent fogging. Some join hands and utter a Shinto prayer for those they have lost, including an 80-year-old who died last year on a dive.
“Her heart gave out,” said one of them.
Each has a weight belt around the waist to aid the descent when they jump overboard into waters up to 20 meters deep. Some are under for as long as a minute before resurfacing with a shellfish or urchin.
“Today, the fishing was better than I thought it would be,” said Kitai as she dropped an octopus and several turban shells, a prized delicacy, into her catch net.
“In the past you could get as many as 40 abalone in a day, but now getting four counts as a good day,” said fellow diver Sumiko Nakagawa, her face lined by spending years under the salty water and fierce sun.
Pollution and overfishing have taken their toll on abalone, their main source of income. The abalone population off Japan has plunged by 90 percent in the past 40 years.
A kilogram of wild abalone sells for around ¥8,000, although most consumed domestically are farmed.
In 2011, local authorities released young abalone into the Pacific in a bid to prop up their numbers. They also ban the use of scuba tanks and limit the catch to specimens over 10 cm long — a size they usually reach around the age of 10.
This kind of fishing was once the sole preserve of women, who are commonly believed to be better at coping with the often cold water thanks to the thicker layer of fat under their skin.
It was also traditionally done topless, although their most famous cinematic outing — in the 1967 James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice” — saw sultry actresses cover their modesty with skimpy bikini tops as they cavorted with Sean Connery.
The advent of wet suits opened the profession to men, according to professor Yoshitaka Ishihara, director of the Toba Sea-Folk Museum in Mie Prefecture.
“Now there are almost as many men as women,” said Ishihara, whose museum houses skin-diving artifacts dating back 10,000 years.
The scant rewards and high risks have discouraged many young people from taking up the profession, and many fear the tradition could die out when those in their 60s, 70s and 80s are no longer able to continue.
Younger divers who take up the profession find it is not easy.
“Initially I made virtually nothing,” said Satomi Yamamoto, 37, as she grilled sea urchins on the harbor in Shima. “But I got better and four years later, I was earning about ¥100,000 a month.”
She is one of a handful of women of her generation to have embraced a way of life they were not born into.
“I was raised in Osaka and I had always lived in a big city, but I am much happier since coming here seven years ago to join my husband,” she said.
Yoshitaka Ishihara said that as Japan mechanized its fishing and farming industries, the way of the ama divers changed a little to keep up.
“Until 1970, girls started fishing when they were about 16 or 17 and learned from just watching their mothers,” he said. “Now, recruits have to undergo a tough initiation and for the first four years have to work with an experienced diver.”
But despite the shrinking number of creatures in the sea, there is a real camaraderie among the ama of Shiba.
“We never compete for fish,” said the now-retired Yuriko Matsui, 83. “If we did, all the shells would have disappeared by now.”