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The “ama” Last Female Pearl Free-Divers of Japan

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This author loves to research and write about traditional cultures.

Japanese Women Divers

On a cold august morning small dainty women in traditional wear make their way to the shore line. They wear white sheer garb and head scarf. The women appear to range from mid-teens, early fifties to late seventies and each carry a basket.

They arrive at the shoreline of a great sea then prepare themselves and confidently wade into the cold freezing waters. Suddenly they dive and disappear from sight for breathless minutes before resurfacing then submerging again.

After a while they resurface and make their way to the shoreline with baskets gull of oyster pearls. This is the life of an old free-diving practice known as Ama.

Ama divers

Ama divers

Ama divers

What types of oysters make pearls?

Pearls are formed by mollusks who have pearlescent substance that is shell lined with nacre. The concretions should have the right shape and luster to be considered pearls. However there are only a handful of mollusk species more likely to form them. Species found in the South Sea, Japan, Indian Ocean and Australia are well adapted to pearl forming. Some species regarded as pearl oysters include Pincatada maxima silver/gold-lipped pearl oyster.

Woman Wearing a Hat and Pearls

woman wearing a hat and pearls

woman wearing a hat and pearls

Types of pearls

tere are two was to obtain them pearls are farmed or harvested from the sea. They are delicate organic stones that require tending. To establish the worth it goes through grading, selection and standardization. We have freshwater pearls, Akoya pearls, south sea and Tahitian pearls.

Pearls and Precious Stones

pearls and precious stones

pearls and precious stones

The Ama Divers

Ama is an ancient art of traditional free-diving practice in Japan. Predominantly done by women of all-ages, early records are dated back 927 AD. This old free-diving form was practiced for economic reasons to harvest pearls or seaweed.

The pearl divers wore only basic cloths or loin cloth without the aid of air tanks or scuba gear. White cloths for diving are the preferred choice because they believe the color wade off sharks.

Occupational Divers

occupational divers

occupational divers

Occupational divers

The occupation is mainly for pearl diving however some harvest seaweed. In ancient times during the imperial emperor era the divers retrieved abalone for shrines. The rare form of diving gradually faded from memory however it was rediscovered in 1893 by a production of cultured pearl. Today there is a resurgence and active diver’s still collect pearls and perform for tourists.

Why they Dive

The women dive mostly for economic reasons to earn wages. Other reasons include entertainment of tourists, cultural reasons harvesting of seaweed.

  • Tourism
  • Pearl diving
  • Sea weed cultivation
  • Abalone for shrines
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Woman Holding a Basket in Water

woman holding a basket in water

woman holding a basket in water


Ama divers are considered very health and live long. This is due to the vigorous training and practice of long control, body to fat ratio. The immense pressure of the sea beds is believe to build their body’s tolerance and muscle.

Japanese culture considers women superior divers therefore women constitute the Ama divers. They believe women have a greater ability to hold their breadths including the distribution body fat.

Training starts early for young girls barely in their teens learning the free-form of diving. Despite the early start many young girls are known to continue the traditional practice into their late 70s. It is not an uncommon sight to see women in their sixties and seventies diving for pearls.

Preparing the gear

Preparing the gear

Preparing the gear


Modern Culture

In modern culture the practice is portrayed in film, television drama and artwork. An academy award for documentary short subject was won by the 1958 documentary Ama girls. Other depictions are found in “Amachan” a television series and a 1814 woodblock made by the renowned Japanese artist Hokusai.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 femi


femi (author) from Nigeria on February 29, 2020:

The profession is very dangerous because they might drown or die from deadly sea creatures.Apparently the trainging and physicality to swim in such a hostile enviroment have some health benefits

Raymond Philippe from The Netherlands on February 28, 2020:

I was surprised to read these divers are healthy and live long. My uneducated guess would be that it was a dangerous profession.

Liz Westwood from UK on February 27, 2020:

You have explained this practice of free diving very well.

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