Ama-San: A Look at Japan’s Female Free Divers

Ama-San: A Look at Japan’s Female Free Divers

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Ama-san diving
Picture: ぽちさん / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Learn about the culture, skills, and economic developments of the ama-san, a dying culture of sea-faring women with historic roots.

When you think of female figures of Japanese history, who comes to mind? Your mind may gravitate towards the image of polite, proper, modestly dressed (yet stunningly beautiful) geisha. After all, Japan is a patriarchal society with a history of female submissiveness. The last thing you might expect to see are fearless female swimmers collecting pearls, sea plants, and shellfish – all without modern equipment. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the ama-san (海女さん; literally, “sea woman”).

The ama-san are Japan’s professional female free-divers and some of the most resilient women in the country (if not the world). Free-diving is a 5,000-year tradition in Japan (possibly longer), and its practitioners have developed specialized skills. The ama-san bring with them lungs of steel and years of experience.

Ama-san: Real-Life Sea Maidens of Japan

Historians say the tradition of the ama-san go back well over 2,000 years (some people believe as many as 5,000). Records of their existence date back to as early as the Heian Period, 927AD. References to them appear in an ancient Japanese poetry anthology called the Man’yoshi, in 750AD.

With little to no official accounts of their, their history and practices have also given birth to local legend. Some have called them the ancient mermaids of the east. Another legend claims the ama-san were from a larger community of sea women who split into two separate groups. One group was shipwrecked by a great typhoon on the Noto Peninsula of Japan. They remained there, legend maintains, and developed into the community of ama-san that we know today.

The ama-san lived fairly nomadic lifestyles along the coasts, traveling with the currents and the seasons. Historians say they initially migrated throughout Japan as a whole. Eventually, they “settled” as a migrant group of fisher-women on specific islands. They became an important asset to the societies they settled in, both economically and culturally. Ama-san often had the important task of presenting abalone and other harvested goods as offerings to shrines and emperors.

All Women

Historically, Ama divers were all women. (At a later time, some men took on the job as the demand for abalone increased. However, this was still pretty rare.) One explanation says this is because of the extra layer of fat women carry. This makes them more resilient to cold temperatures than men, meaning they’re able to handle longer dives and make bigger catches. Many ama-san were also the wives of fishermen and would complete their dives while their husbands fished on the seas.


Being a predominately female-oriented job, divers passed down the traditions and training from mother to daughter. Ama-san culture also emphasized women’s independence and strong female roles, a unique feature considering Japan’s notoriously patriarchal societal standards. In fact, many praised these female divers for their self-sufficiency. They’re lauded as some of the physically strongest female figures of Japan. Many divers remained in good health into old age. Some still dove into their 70s or later[1].

Tradition, Tools, and Training of the Ama-San

Ama-san diving into the sea
Picture: イリマパパ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

As one could imagine, the work of an ama diver was no easy task. Becoming an ama-san required hard training, as the requirements of the job were physically demanding. Girls born into ama families could begin training as young as 10 years old. They learned the required skills from their mothers and other elder divers of the family. Divers would also swap skills and techniques at the “Amagoya,” or “Ama Huts” where divers would rest and warm up between dives.

There are two types of ama divers. One is the funado, who would take a boat out to deeper waters and dive up to 80 feet deep. The other is the kachido, who generally remained close to shore, diving to shallower depths of between 10-20 feet.

It’s All in the Breath

The ama lacked the technology and specialized tools for diving that we have today. They had to develop these skills on their own. Trained ama could dive as far as 30 meters deep with nothing but a loincloth and extremely simple tools. They often endured cold temperatures and intense water pressure for long periods of time. The ama were well-known for their incredible lung capacity. Most could hold their breath for up to two minutes – all while turning over rocks, cutting seaweeds, and grabbing shellfish in their hands.

This special breathing technique gave birth to what became known as isobue ( 磯笛 ). The ama made this trademark whistling sound as they resurfaced. The whistle let out the last air in their lungs, allowing them to catch a fresh breath. Legend says you could hear this whistle from a boat while out at sea. Sometimes, their families could even hear them from back at home in the village.

The video clip below shows a portion of a live shell-collecting demonstration held at an ama-san tourist attraction, Mikihito Pearl Island, where you can hear the whistles of the ama.

磯笛 ミキモト真珠島の海女さんの実演


(JP) Link: Isobue: Mikihito Pearl Island Ama-san Demonstration

Ama-San Tools of the Trade

Before the modernization of Japan, ama-san were a pretty minimalistic bunch. In fact, even with the introduction of new tools after the Meiji Restoration, they continued to shun modern technology in favor of their traditional tools and gear. This gear was also very simple and lightweight. The only tools they carried with them were sharp, wedge-like tools, called isonomi. They used these to pry abalone off the rocks. A rope attached to floating wooden tubs served both as a buoy to hold on to when resurfacing, and a bin to place their harvest. Sometimes they would carry fishnet bags.

Before the Meiji Period, gear was also as light as possible. Most ama wore only a loincloth, called fundoshi, and a bandana, called tenugui, to keep their hair out of their faces. (The tenugui was also said to be a symbol of good luck). This was to prevent restrictions in movement while swimming. Indeed, some ama swam completely nude. Goggles were also introduced in the Meiji Period[2].

Modernism and Modesty

Ama-san were a vital part of the economy of the cultures where they lived. These seaside towns and villages relied heavily on the harvest of seafood and other coastal resources. Though the ama are often known for collecting pearls nowadays, that didn’t actually begin until after the Meiji Restoration. They mostly collected abalone, seaweeds, and even other seafood such as octopus.

But the introduction of new technology (and also new people and cultures) brought big changes.

The Meiji Period brought with it many booms – booms in modernization, in business, and in tourism. While the newcomers were quite impressed with the skills and abilities of the ama, they also had concerns. Westerners were primarily concerned by the primitive equipment used by the ama. But more than that, they were alarmed that some swam naked. Startled Westerners were not used to seeing this and considered it “indecent.”

Sticking with Tradition

The ama were understandably reluctant to change their centuries-old culture for the sake of their new visitors’ prudish preferences. But they eventually conformed to wearing the black diving suits they are now known for. Most also began using goggles for convenience. They are still viewed as a tourist attraction to this day. However, that conformity was as far as they were willing to go.

To this day, the remaining ama rely solely on traditional tools. They refuse any new technology that would otherwise help improve their dives. From their view, the ama only use what is absolutely necessary, and only take what they need. In this way, they uphold their standards of ocean conservation – protection of reefs and the wildlife that inhabit them. Modern technology could never replace the deep respect for nature of this sea-loving culture.

Where the sea whistle echoes

Ama, the legendary women divers of Japan, have been practicing sustainable fishing for hundreds of years, but climate change coupled with overfishing is brin…

(JP) Link: “Where the Whistle Echoes” Short Documentary (English)

(See link to the original Japanese version below under “Other Resources!”)

The Business of the Ama-San

Ama sometimes found pearls during their regular daily dives. However, most never pursued pearl-diving as a business. They considered finding a pearl as a gracious bonus bestowed upon them by their ancestors for doing good work. However, that changed in 1893. Kokichi Mikimoto’s new business, Mikimoto Pearl, created a new demand for ama divers.

Mikimoto was a successful Japanese businessman. He realized that he could use the ama not just to harvest, but to culture and create new pearls. So he established “pearl farms,” employing the ama and taking advantage of their expertise. The ama and the pearl business eventually formed strong bonds. For the ama, it was a way to keep the tradition alive.

To cultivate pearls, the ama would collect pearl-producing oysters. They’d open them up and insert the nucleus that would become a pearl, then place them back into the sea. Divers hid these fertilized oysters in spots where they were least likely to suffer damage. The ama would then return to the hiding spots after the cultivation period was complete to retrieve the pearls[3].

Tradition Wanes

The Meiji Restoration brought many changes across the nation. Yet there were several out-of-the-way areas that remained, for the most part, untouched for a while. One of these was Hegura Island, a fishing island in the Noto Peninsula. Hegura relied greatly on the ama. The island retained traditions even after Meiji’s new modernizations transformed the rest of the country.

The ama who lived on Hegura continued their traditional garment-free dives and refused to use new tools. Residents established rules for ama-san to prevent overfishing. For example, an ama would net a two-day no-work penalty for harvesting abalone smaller than 10 cm.

Such preservation efforts lasted for a brief period. But eventually, the island experienced a serious decline. The population aged, and the younger generation – influenced by modernization – wasn’t keen on preserving tradition. As of 2010, the population had shrunk to a mere 110 people. The island’s elementary and junior high schools even shut down due to a paucity of students.

Ama-San: Keeping Tradition Alive

Ama-san doing their work
Picture: gaistino / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Though an important economic asset in the past, the current-day ama-san are all facing a frightening but very real fact. The times are changing. Outside of a few, small rural fishing villages, there’s no demand for the ama’s services. The culture is very quickly fading away, and the younger generation is moving on to more modern career pursuits. The number of living, active ama-san has dropped to as low as 2,000.

The ama divers themselves are very well aware of the seemingly imminent disappearance of their culture. They also are witnessing first-hand how climate change, over-fishing, and pollution are impacting the quality and quantity of yields.

The Ama-San in Festivals and Media

The number of divers has greatly decreased. However, modern establishments, events, and media continue to celebrate this beautiful part of Japanese heritage. Mikimoto Pearl is an important tourist attraction, with live demonstrations and even a museum that displays ama history, traditions, and tools up to 3,000 years old.

There are festivals that celebrate the ama, too, such as the annual Ama-Matsuri. Modern media have also featured the ama-san in an effort to generate awareness of the decline of their culture. A popular morning drama called “Ama-chan” tells the heartwarming story of a young girl who moves back to her hometown to become a diver, and later revitalizes the town after the Great Tohoku Earthquake. Various companies have also produced a few informative and inspirational documentaries.

It’s uncertain how much of an impact these productions will have on restoring the culture. But these efforts at least guarantee that the memories and traditions of this beautiful culture will never get lost at sea.

Kanno Sugako’s Daring Revolution


[1] 海女とは?!Isei Jinja

[2] Link no longer active

[3] 御木本幸吉. Wikipedia JP

Other Resources (Japanese)

Ama Fishing Culture, Promotion, Preservation, and Succession
Scroll to the bottom of the above linked website for a full PDF download of a picture guide all about the ama-san, including an English version!

How Much Do Ama-san Earn? 100 Little-Known Facts About Ama

Ama-Matsuri Official Website

磯笛の聞こえる海 (“Where the Whistle Echoes” Japanese Version)

Ama-Matsuri Official Website

TV Drama: Amachan

Ama-san (English Subbed, Full Documentary)

Ama-san: Women of the Sea (English Subbed, Short Documentary)

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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