Japanese Mermaids: Ancient Pearl Hunters of the Sea

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20th Nov, 2012

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These women are the last of their kind. In their floral wetsuits, they fill their lungs with air and dive for long periods of time deep into the Pacific ocean, with nothing more than a mask and flippers. They are known as Ama and make a living hunting for abalone, a sea snail that produces pearls.

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Women have been doing this job for nearly two thousand years in Japan, believed to be better suited for the task because as females, they have an extra layer of fat to insulate them and can supposedly hold their breath longer than men. But … they’re old women, you’re probably saying to yourself. Indeed, the youngest known ama is forty-five years old and women are commonly known to dive well into their 90s.  But their daughters and the younger female generation of their communities are uninterested in learning from their elders. The unusual profession is nearly extinct.

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The underwater hunting, often up to 30 feet below, is dangerous work and the divers are often joined by sharks during their descent. The Amas will usually be under water for 2 minutes at a time and come up for air for just barely a few seconds. They will do this up to 60 times in one diving session. The water is very often freezing.

The ama don’t make as much money as the did 40 years ago, another reason why the job is unattractive to the younger Japanese women. Nevertheless they have managed to support themselves and their families entirely, while their husbands, often fishermen, are away most of the year.

Talk about super women. In the 1964 Bond film, You Only Live Twice, Hollywood shed some light on this phenomenon when they featured a “Bond girl” who was a sensationalized ama (as well as a spy ofcourse).  Kizzy Susuki is the only Bond girl to ever bear James Bond’s child.

German photographer Nina Poppe, spent several weeks on the Pacific coast of Japan in the small fishing communities where the ama live in an attempt to photograph and immortalize these women before they disappear. The ancient art of Ama literally meaning “women of the sea”, will soon breathe its last breathe and a forgotten breed of super women will be just another local legend.


Images via Nina Poppe and Fosco Maraini

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