- Not to be confused with ama (尼), referring to Buddhist nuns.
- Japanese: 海女 or 海人 (ama)
Ama were female shelldivers who collected abalone, turbo shells, and certain other highly prized marine products. As abalone, and certain other of the goods they collected, were highly prized by the shogunal and imperial courts, and as export/tribute goods, ama enjoyed considerable official protections and privileges, at least in the Edo period. Though typically of low social status, coming from fishing/villager families, ama were also frequently eroticized in literature and the visual arts.
The practice is believed to date back to the earliest times. Archaeological finds have included bone tools believed to have been used to scrape shellfish off the rocks, and mythological stories feature male and female divers offering up abalone to the gods. The Engishiki indicates that authorities in Chikuzen province offered abalone as a tribute good to the Imperial capital in the 10th century, if not earlier.
Some ama operated from shore, while other dove from boats; both modes of operation involved very little capital investment or physical equipment. Divers typically wore nothing but a loincloth and a belt of rice-straw around their waist, which was used to hold their tools: a knife used to scrape the shells from the rock, and an empty shell called kirigai which could be left as a marker of a site she wished to return to. The inside of the kirigai caught the light and sparkled, making it more visible from above the water, allowing the ama to find her spot again; it also served as a claim to the site, which other ama might be expected to respect. The ama was typically underwater for 30 seconds up to a couple of minutes at a time, and might spend much of the day diving, with periods of rest which she would use to get warm. Even in summer, the water could be cold enough to merit keeping a brazier aboard the boat, or onshore, for this purpose.
The skills and techniques of the ama were traditionally passed down from mother to daughter, with infants being kept on the boat from a very young age, learning to swim by age six or seven, and beginning to dive just for fun as a child. Teenage girls may have begun to dive for shells from shore, earning the privilege of diving from the boats once they proved their skills, usually by their late teens. Most ama are believed to have been at the peak of their careers around age 25-32, but some are known to have continued the work into their 60s or even 70s.
It became more difficult in the Edo period, however, to continue this tradition of passing down skills to one's daughter, as many families throughout the archipelago shifted from a practice of married couples living with the wife's family, to living with the husband's. This shift meant that families and villages would lose the "returns on investment," so to speak, of training young women to be ama when those women married into other families, their training and their labor then coming to benefit that family, and that village. Some families adapted to these new circumstances by arranging that if they were to marry away their ama daughter, another ama would marry into their family, contributing her labor to the family, and to the village.
Ama sometimes dove with their sisters and mother, but it was also common for a number of unrelated women to work as divers on a boat; in either case, the skipper (the father or brother in the case of a family operation) was typically the only man on board the boat, and was in charge of the operation. He was also in charge of watching out for, and taking care of, the women. He used a long pole called a hikizao to help the girls out of the water, and often dove in himself to aid or rescue a diver who did not come up soon enough.
Ama were granted such extensive rights and privileges by local lords because the abalone and other products they gathered were so highly valued; fresh abalone was a delicacy prized by the elites, and abalone could also be dried to produce noshi, a luxury good offered to the kami at Shinto shrines. Abalone was so highly prized, in fact, that domains which lacked for ama welcomed divers from other locales, to help them fulfill the quotas demanded by the shogunate clearinghouse (which collected abalone and other goods from the domains), and to produce (collect) additional amounts, which they might then pay to the domainal authorities in taxes or fees. Such practices go back before the Edo period, as well, as local elites offered ama land and fishing rights in exchange for a supply of noshi. Due to such enticements, ama are known to have traveled quite extensively, with ama from Chikuzen province (near Fukuoka) traveling as far as Noto in the north, and to various parts of Kyushu and Shikoku. Many migrated only seasonally, leaving in the sixth month with their entire families, and returning in the eighth month.
Ama remained numerous and active in some regions as late as the 1930s, but decline was felt in many other regions as early as the late Edo period, as male divers, fishermen who used halberds to spear abalone from the boat, and other competition moved in.
- Arne Kalland, Fishing Villages in Tokugawa Japan, University of Hawaii Press (1995), 163-179.