Shinmei Shrine in Osatsu, a small community in Mie Prefecture, is a magnet for tourists from across the country, particularly women attracted by its supposed promise to accommodate at least one of each female worshipper’s wishes.

But the shrine is more than just an ordinary place of worship or a popular sightseeing spot. Ishigami, a god enshrined there, is believed to be the protector of ama (sea women) divers, an endangered breed of women who stake their livelihood on — and risk their lives for — fishing deep under water without a breathing apparatus.

Shigako Imura, 82, who retired after 66 years of dive fishing three years ago, used to worship at Shinmei Shrine twice a week.

Archaeological evidence shows dive fishing has been practiced since the prehistoric hunter-gatherer times on the Shima Peninsula, which is now part of Mie Prefecture. The ama tradition has been particularly strong in Osatsu.

Ama in the region have been known as skillful catchers of fish and other sea creatures. Their reputation was such that middlemen from across Japan came there to scout for divers willing to take their chances elsewhere, as far away as Hokkaido, Kyushu, and even the Korean Peninsula during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule.

“In the past, it was said that a woman (in this region) can’t marry unless she becomes an ama diver,” Imura said.

But the population of ama has been dropping especially in postwar Japan due to a shortage of successors.

Although dive fishing has become somewhat less onerous since ama discarded their traditional white cloth outfit for rubber wet suits in the late 1950s, it is still a physically demanding job.

In Mie Prefecture alone, there were more than 4,000 ama in 1972, according to the Toba Sea-Folk Museum in Toba, Mie Prefecture. The number has dwindled to fewer than 800 in recent times, although the population of ama there is still larger than any other part of Japan.

Born in 1932, Imura has directly witnessed the decline in the tradition.

As was the custom, Imura learned dive fishing from her mother when she was still little. After finishing elementary school a year after the end of the Pacific War in 1945, she started dive fishing as a livelihood.

Later, Imura relocated temporarily to Miyakejima, a remote island south of Tokyo Bay, to work as a migrant diver, performing what she called a kind of “ritual practice before marriage.”

But during the boom years in the 1960s and 1970s that catapulted Japan into the ranks of the world’s largest economies, education for women improved and the variety of jobs available for them increased.

The trend arrived in fishing communities on the Shima Peninsula as well, diminishing the attraction of dive fishing as a career. A decline in the catch of abalone, which fetch high prices as a delicacy, was another blow for dive-fishing communities.

Imura’s daughter, who was born in 1972, did not follow in her mother’s footsteps to lead a life as an ama.

“I wanted my daughter to get a stable job,” Imura said.

However, Imura herself loved dive fishing and could not quit. She continued to keep the records of her daily catch and sales, and looking at the evidence of her exploits was a delight. Even now, Imura said, she feels an itch to dive again at the sight of active ama.

The practice of ama free-divers is believed to be unique to Japan and South Korea.

In Goza, another small Shima Peninsula community, there is a successful South Korean ama working among her Japanese colleagues.

Kim Mi-jin, 51, immigrated to Japan in 1996. She first worked in an office in Osaka, where she had a relative, but soon quit.

Before moving to Japan, she lived on South Korea’s Jeju Island, which has the largest population of dive-fishing women in the country, and she herself dived for pleasure.

Because of the diving connection, she relocated from Osaka to Goza and received training from Machiyo Yamashita, who headed the local association of ama. After a year of training, Kim mastered the skills and acquired fishing rights.

Kim has settled in the community, communicating with her neighbors in the local dialect. When dive-fishing women from Jeju Island come to the Shima Peninsula for an exchange visit, Kim acts as a translator.

“People in Goza are friendly. I can’t think of quitting (dive fishing),” Kim said.

Yamashita, Kim’s mentor, said dive fishing, which requires expert skills and involves high risks, is not a job that can be taken lightly by someone who has a romantic view of ama divers’ life.

“I’ve devoted myself wholeheartedly to my job as an ama for 40 years,” Yamashita said. “What counts is how much we catch. I have pride.”

The Mie Prefectural Government is planning to ask the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to add the tradition of ama to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list. The effort involves other prefectures hoping to keep the ama tradition alive.

Yoshikata Ishihara, director of the Toba Sea-Folk Museum, initiated the effort. He emphasized the importance of ama as practitioners of sustainable fishing who can see the condition of resources with their own eyes.

“This deserves a lot more attention,” Ishihara said.

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