• Tue. May 28th, 2024

The last of Japan’s ‘Ama Mermaids’

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May 15, 2024

Kimiyo Hayashi, a 69-year-old female diver, is possibly the last of her generation to earn a living from traditional seafood harvesting. In Japanese culture, female divers known as Ama have been diving for seafood and pearls for over 2,000 years. These divers have thrived in the waters of Mie Prefecture, which is known for its rich seafood reserves and pearl farming tradition. Ama divers are able to dive up to a depth of 30 meters and hold their breath for two minutes.

However, the practice of Ama diving is in danger of disappearing due to factors such as climate change, technological advancements, and migration. There are currently only around 2,000 Ama divers left in Japan, with Ms. Hayashi being one of the 500 remaining in Mie Prefecture. In the past, there were about 4,000 divers in the region during the 1970s.

Ama divers are considered skilled due to their body composition and breath-holding abilities. Traditionally, Ama wear white attire as a symbol of purity and possibly for protection against sharks. Despite their traditional methods, Ama divers continue to dive without the use of oxygen tanks, earning them the nickname “mermaids.” However, younger generations are finding it difficult to sustain a living from Ama diving, leading to concerns about the survival of this cultural practice.

Ms. Hayashi faces challenges such as declining shellfish populations due to global warming and rising sea temperatures. She reminisces about the days when she used to collect baskets full of shellfish but now struggles due to changing environmental conditions. In the past, Ama divers played a vital role in pearl farming, but with technological advancements, their role has diminished.

The pearl farming industry in Mie Prefecture is also facing challenges, with only a fraction of the workforce from decades past still active. Jewelry businesses in the region are at risk of disappearing as younger generations move away from traditional careers in the industry. Naoto Yoshimori, a pearl company owner, worries about the future of his family business as his children are not interested in continuing the legacy. The pearl industry is slowly shrinking, and efforts to sustain it for future generations are becoming increasingly difficult.

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