TSU, MIE PREF. – After watching a television series in junior high school about a Tokyo teenager who relocates to the Sanriku coast in Tohoku to join the ranks of the ama (female divers), Miku Higuchi was hooked.
The 19-year-old Higuchi, who recently became the first female diver in five years to debut at Mikimoto Pearl Island, is helping to attract tourists to the region by taking part in demonstrations on collecting sea urchins, pearl oysters and other shellfish in Mie Prefecture’s Toba Bay.
“I would like to pass on this traditional method of fishing to many people,” Higuchi said of the ama culture that used to flourish on the island.
Higuchi, who lives in Shima in Mie, was inspired by her father’s love of fishing and became an ocean and swimming enthusiast at an early age.
She was in her third year of junior high school when she took an interest in ama diving after watching the hit series “Amachan,” which aired on NHK in 2013. She later enrolled at a fisheries high school, where she had the opportunity to obtain her diving certificate.
In a career consultation session, Higuchi’s teacher told her that the operator of Mikimoto Pearl Island, which houses a pearl museum and offers ama demonstrations, was taking applications for divers, so she decided to apply.
In 19th century Japan, it was the job of the ama, who descended to the depths without scuba gear, to collect pearl oysters from the seabed so the pearl-producing nucleus could be inserted.
Once this process was completed, the ama were also responsible for carefully returning the oysters to the water, making sure they were safely tucked away and protected from potentially decimating typhoons and algal blooms known as red tides.
Although ama played a crucial role at the time, the development of new technology has eroded the need for their skills. Nowadays, the majority of ama are well into their 60s and 70s.
Since joining the company that manages Mikimoto Pearl Island in April, Higuchi has been hard at work refining her diving technique and learning from her elders.
“They told me to swim like a mermaid,” she said.
Initially, Higuchi was only able to hold her breath for about five seconds submerged in 5 to 6 meters of water, but before long she could spend about half a minute beneath the waves.
“She has rid herself of excess movement,” said the company’s supervisor about Higuchi’s progress. In fact, Higuchi was able to make her debut in June, a month earlier than expected.
Like all the ama at Mikimoto Pearl Island, Higuchi dons the white isogi (cotton bathing suit) when diving.
The most rewarding feeling comes when, after several fruitless dives, she is finally able to bring up a shellfish to show the tourists who have gathered to watch her work.
Her main problem now is mastering the isobue, a piercing whistling sound the women make as they slowly exhale upon resurfacing. The technique helps the divers regulate their breathing and allows them to dive for longer.
“I hope to do my best to learn from my elders,” Higuchi said.