Editor’s note: Paul Varian, retired CNN writer, editor and senior executive producer, visited Japan on a trip hosted by the Mie prefecture and organized by the Japan Foreign Ministry. 

They were Japan‘s first working women – divers who for centuries have been plunging deep into the sea without breathing equipment to fill their satchels with underwater treasures.

These ama divers, or “women of the sea,” started making a living on their own terms when job options for women were far more limited.

And as Japan’s policy makers aim to woo more women into the modern workforce to stimulate a much-hoped-for economic revival, the ama are holding unswervingly to their ancient traditions, working into their 70s or 80s as their numbers dwindle.

Some trace the tradition back more than 2,000 years. Until modern times the ama swam almost fully naked in search of oysters and pearls.

shellfish in hand
Amas dive for shellfish today much as they have for centuries.

Today, wearing a face goggle, flippers and wetsuits under white cloth coveralls, they dive to depths of 16 to 50 feet in a hasty quest to snag octopus, seaweed, turban snails and shellfish delicacies like abalone – a crusty, ear-shaped mollusk sometimes served as a gift to the gods.

They stay submerged no longer than 50 seconds per dive and use chisels when necessary to scrape their prey off rocks.

The amas’ marine prowess was on display for international reporters, including this one representing Global Atlanta, who toured Japan’s Ise-Shima region in the run-up to the May 26-27 G7 Summit of leaders from Britain, Canada, France, Germany Italy, Japan and the United States – a visit arranged by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Their work and lifestyles provided a counterpoint to a theme of the tour: Japan’s efforts to expand employment opportunities and workplace equality for women in a country where 40 percent of them do not work outside their homes.

Officials in Mie Prefecture, the state that hosted the G7 Summit, said they were promoting measures to encourage the recruitment, hiring and promotion of women, work-life management enhancements and maternity and paternity leave for government workers.

And reporters visited the facilities of a grinding machinery and cutting tools manufacturer with a workforce that is nearly one-third female and a president, Keiko Nishioka, who is dedicated to ending “gender bias” in her company.

“I need to be a good mother for this company,” she said.

The ama divers enjoy a relatively prosperous way of life.  They are paid by the catch, and the more experienced know where the fish are most plentiful. They can earn $500 or more on a good day.

“The sea is like a bank,” said Nakamura Hatsuyo, who is still diving at age 64 and zips around the quaint Pacific fishing community of Toshijima Island on her motor scooter when she’s not on the job. “You go in and get a catch – almost like money – and then you come back.”

But the bank is not a bottomless pit. The abalone population has been shrinking since 1980, a result of overfishing, water contamination and rising sea temperatures. The lucrative shellfish fetches $25 to $40 a pound for divers, but the catch has dwindled from 700 tons a year as recently as 1995 to 50 today.

Kosaki Hamazaki started her career as an ama diver at age 17 and kept at it for 68 years. She retired at 85 when her legs got too weak.
Kosaki Hamazaki started her career as an ama diver at age 17 and kept at it for 68 years. She retired at 85 when her legs got too weak.

Kosaki Hamazaki started her career as an ama diver at age 17 and kept at it for 68 years. Now 90, she retired five years ago “because my legs were getting too weak … You begin slipping on the rocks.”

Responding to questions while she was drying raw, home-grown onions for her family and neighbors on a sun-heated sidewalk, Ms. Hamazaki said that over the years she dove for “octopus, abalone – anything I could catch.”

It’s an occupation, she said, that requires no training: “You don’t have to learn;, you just have to dive.”

The women work mostly in summer and are allowed to dive for no longer than 60 to 90 minutes a day. According to one authority on the ama tradition, female physical flexibility is more suited for so-called “free-diving,” without oxygen support. It’s also believed that women have more subcutaneous fat than men, which helps them tolerate the cold.

“I look full of life when I’m diving,” Ms. Hatsuyo told us. “My husband says I look best after diving.”

Some dive from fishing boats operated by their husbands who reel them in on lifelines tied around their waist, but most swim from shore or travel in groups by boat and descend and ascend on their own power. As they surface, they emit a high-pitched whistle that sounds like the hoot of an owl as a breath-saving technique between dives.

As their numbers have shrunk — from a high point of 17,000 in Japan to just 1,650 today — their average age has risen because of greater opportunities for younger women in the workforce.

Two of the 100 women who took part in a ritual shallow-water dive just off the shore at Toba City told us they considered themselves “the young ones” in the ama sisterhood. One was 61, the other 63 and —both looked younger. One has daughters who hold office jobs, preferring “regular salaries” to the economic uncertainty of diving.

“One day you get a lot of money, the next day none,” she said.

Another issue for younger women is child care, an industry that has not caught up with the influx of female workers. On Toshijima, Ms. Nakamura told us she didn’t start her career as a diver until she was 28 and her three children had “grown up.” Neither of her daughters became divers. They married and live on the mainland.

After delivering their catch to market each day, the ama divers gather together in huts to clean off their tools and clothing, relax and chat amiably with each other.

A priest helps Ama divers prepare for a ritual dive at the "Beach of God." Photo by Paul Varian.
A priest helps Ama divers prepare for a ritual dive at the “Beach of God.” Photo by Paul Varian.

“Women divers live in a community and are happy to live together and with nature,” said Yoshikata Ishihara, director of the Toba Sea Folk Museum, who briefed our group on the day of the ritual dive from the “Beach of God” for abalone to offer the deities at the Ise-Jingu Shinto shrine, which world leaders visited during the G7 summit.

The 100 ama divers were smiling and laughing as they gathered on the beach in Kuzaki Town for the big event, and a fully garbed priest prayed before an altar facing the ocean.

Others entertained us later at a nearby restaurant — run by a retired 85-year- old diver — where they helped prepare and serve barbecued shellfish, danced, posed for pictures and demonstrated their unique sea whistle, known as Isabue.

Still smiling, they then lined up outside to wave goodbye — a Japanese custom we witnessed elsewhere on the tour — as we boarded a bus on the first leg of our long trip to Tokyo for our flights home.

More photos of the Ama: