For Aiko Ono, an ocean lover and diving enthusiast, plunging into the professional life of an ama (female diver) was a path she chose without hesitation.
The 40-year-old Tokyo native, who previously worked as a photographer, relocated to the central Japanese prefecture of Mie in 2015 to become an ama, a “woman of the sea,” a profession that only exists in Japan and South Korea.
“Ama have preserved the sea while sustaining the way of living in this fishing town,” says Ono in a recent interview, explaining that ama diving culture is deeply rooted in the daily lives of the people living in the Ijika district of Toba.
Ama diving in the prefecture has thousands of years of history. In 2017, there were 660 ama with nearly half of those in Japan active in Mie, according to a survey by Toba Sea-Folk Museum. A reason for the large number in the region is its wide area of seaweed beds, which nurture sea creatures such as abalone and turban shellfish, says Daizo Hiraga, director of the museum. Various types of seaweed are also harvested by ama.
During fishing seasons, Ono, clad in a wetsuit and fins, dives twice in the morning with her group, some of whom are in their 80s, for 70 minutes at a time. Without an oxygen tank, she reaches depths of up to 10 meters and swims through seaweed in search of her targets. Free-diving means that the amount an ama is able to harvest is limited by her ability to hold her breath.
Once on shore, Ono says that ama duties continue with tasks such as processing fish products, gathering wood for the ama’s kamado (hut) fireplace and taking care of the shrines at which they worship.
Ono was hired as an apprentice ama by the city government, which has been promoting relocation to help revitalize the area. She learned to dive on the job and has since been working on organizing events and photo exhibitions to promote the culture. She gained her fishing license in 2018.
“She’s a full-fledged ama now,” says 82-year-old Tora Shiroyama, Ono’s senior ama who has dived at the same fishing location for more than 60 years.
Each ama diving group has its own kamado where the women warm themselves after diving, eat lunch and chat. It is here that ama, like Shiroyama, share techniques and knowledge of diving, while teaching a respect for the sea — information to be passed down from generation to generation.
The prefectural government stipulates when the diving season must be closed and the minimum sizes of major sea creatures that are allowed to be caught, but ama in the region also stick to their own self-imposed rules to prevent overfishing.
Based on a government rule, they are permitted to catch them between Jan. 1 and Sept. 15 and, according to the Toba Sea-Folk Museum survey, the number of days each ama in Mie dived for abalone in 2017 varied from seven to 120.
In Ijika, ama start catching abalone — an expensive delicacy and popular target — in May, says Ono. Turban shells are available throughout the year, but ama only harvest them in winter in order to save some for the following year.
As for her personal efforts to preserve resources, Ono says, “I want to preserve the enjoyment of catching, so I try not to take everything I find.” She makes it a rule not to hunt abalone of borderline sizes when the fishing season is close to ending.
In the Kuzaki district, neighboring Ijika, local ama Kazuyo Seko says that until recently, the use of wetsuits was limited to one ama per family because their protection from cold water helped divers work longer, which could lead to overharvesting.
“It’s about considering the future,” says the 64-year-old.
According to Takahiro Matsui, associate professor of marine policy and culture in Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, the total ama fish catches in Japan have fallen due to the combined factors of climate change, fewer fishers and overfishing. In Mie Prefecture, the catch of abalone decreased to about 45 tons in 2015 from its peak of over 750 tons in 1966, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
The decrease of marine resources has had an impact on the ama’s income. Although Ono says that she is able to make a living as an ama, she explains that it is only possible because the sea in Ijika is still rich, and ama there can dive more frequently than those in other areas.
The fall in income, a shared problem for aging ama communities in Japan, has become an obstacle to passing down family businesses or attracting successors from outside the community.
At a lecture held at an annual ama summit in Toba, where ama in Japan and from South Korea gathered, last November, Matsui said efforts, such as branding products to secure a higher selling price or varying business partners to avoid abuse from buyers, were a necessity.
Megumi Kodera, a 37-year-old former system engineer, is one of the young ama in Sugashima in Toba who has been exploring new ways to sustain the lifestyle.
“It was difficult to find a new distribution channel because I live on an island and have 2-year-old twins, Kodera said at the summit. “So I had to rely on the internet,” she continued, explaining how she uses shopping apps to directly sell her seaweed product to customers.
Pocket Marche, one of the apps she uses, allows producers to have their own pages to introduce themselves and their products. Consumers can post messages and photos on the page, and producers can reply.
“The apps enable you to decide the price and the timing to sell,” Kodera said, adding that feedback from customers is encouraging as it helps her get a better grasp of their preferences.
She noted, however, that even though sales prices have risen, the process requires care and time to pack the products and write personalized messages to customers. She also pointed out that there is also always a risk of being criticized online.
Another young ama in Ijika, Rikako Sato, said that she uses her English skills to introduce local ama and fishermen culture to tourists, both from home and abroad, while operating a guesthouse.
“By showing the ins and outs, the fun parts and hard parts of the lifestyle, I want people to know how spectacular ama are,” the 32-year-old Sato said. “Perhaps an elementary school student who sees (and learns about) ama will want to become one and join us in the future. That would be great.”
In Ijika, Ono says, “I’m determined to inherit the ama culture and I think it’s also my responsibility to do so. I’m not sure if I can dive until my 80s, but I’ll definitely continue to be involved with ama.”