Ama, or female divers, make their living diving to the bottom of the sea in search of seaweed and shellfish such as abalone and clams. They now exist only in limited areas; Mie, Iwate and Ishikawa and other prefectures. The cities of Shima and Toba in Mie Prefecture have the largest number of ama in the country. Approximately 1,000 ama are active in those cities, and it is estimated that they represent about half of all ama in Japan.
There are a few men doing the same work, but the number of women engaged in it is far larger, so in general, it is recognized as a profession for women. The reason for this wide gender gap is because women can retain body heat better in the cold sea due to having more subcutaneous fat than men. It is said that because they only wore a loincloth in the past, even during the winter, maintaining body heat was a matter of life and death. Ama first swim to the spot where they hope to find their catch, then dive deep to the sea bottom to look for it. They spend about a minute underwater on each dive, and dive between 50 and 100 times. Their safety is heavily influenced by the weather and sea conditions, meaning they have to work hand in hand with nature and making the work a rather dangerous profession.
Traditional ama fishing in the cities of Shima and Toba was designated as an Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Mie Prefecture in 2014 — the first time for ama to receive such designation. In a report of the Council for the Protection of Cultural Properties, passing the skills to identify the sea bottom terrain and fishing grounds down throughout the history of ama fishing without substantial change and voluntarily playing a role in resource management by limiting catches, were noted as being highly evaluated points.
There is a movement that aims to register ama fishing on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. This movement began on the private level from around 2007. In order to build momentum for the registration, the cities of Shima and Toba have hosted an “ama summit” five of the six times it has been held since 2009. The 6th summit was held in Toba on Nov. 7 and 8, and ama from Japan and South Korea, the only two countries active in this area, agreed to disseminate ama culture for the G7 Ise-Shima Summit. The effort to register ama fishing on the UNESCO list was also discussed.
Being designated a cultural property of a country is one of the requirements for UNESCO’s registration. The nine prefectures — Iwate, Miyagi, Ishikawa, Fukui, Shizuoka, Mie, Tottori, Yamaguchi and Tokushima — that participated in the Ama Cultural Preservation and Promotion Conference agreed to survey and promote ama culture on a national scale.
In recent years, amagoya (ama hut), a place for ama to warm up and recover after diving have opened to visitors. People can enjoy the fresh seafood caught by ama, while having a friendly conversation with them, enriching their understanding of this unique culture.
Food, nature and so much more
Mike tsu kuni is one of the historical phrases to describe the Shima area. In old Japanese, the words mean “the nation dedicated to providing food for the emperor.” In the seafood-rich Mie Prefecture, Shima is especially known for the wide diversity of the catch. In “Manyoshu,” supposedly the oldest surviving anthology of Japanese poetry, there is a poem by Ootomono Yakamochi using the term mike tsu kuni as a poetic epithet, describing a small boat with ama divers.
In “Kojiki,” Japan’s oldest historical record, there are a few sections that make a strong case that Shima was the source of seafood for the Imperial Court well before the Asuka and Nara Periods of Japanese history. Wooden signs with the names of seafood such as abalone, giant clams and sea cucumbers have been excavated from the ruins of Heijo-kyo, the onetime capital of Japan. These facts indicate that seafood was provided to the Imperial Court from Shima throughout Japanese history.
To enjoy the natural beauty of the area, a visit to Ise-Shima National Park is highly recommended. It boasts graceful vistas formed by islets and a line of deep coves stretching from Toba Bay to Matoya, Ago and Gokasho bays. Ise Jingu is the collective name given to 125 different shrines, including the Kotaijingu Inner Shrine in Ujitachi, Toyouke Daijingu Outer Shrine in Toyokawa and other sanctuaries. Most of these shrines lie within Ise-Shima National Park. Another highlight of the park is the Mount Asama Observatory; the highest point in Ise-Shima National Park (555 m above sea level), where visitors can appreciate a panoramic view of the Shima, the Atsumi and Chita peninsulas, as well as the iconic Mount Fuji in winter. The famous Meoto Iwa (married couple rocks) have been a popular place to worship the sunrise since ancient times. The sun rising between the two rocks is especially beautiful on clear days from May through July.
For visitors who feel like staying few days in the area to enjoy the beauty of nature and the local hospitality, there are quite a few hotels in the area. From campsites to top-tier Japanese and Western resort hotels, there is something for everyone. Many of them have onsen hot spring facilities, and offer activities such as marine sports, hiking, cycling or golf on or near their properties.
In addition to having much to offer in terms of sightseeing and food, Shima boasts a long history of cultivating a rich culture through to the modern age.