This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2015.
In a smoke-filled metal shack, three women cook freshly caught seafood on a simple metal screen over an open charcoal fire. The shells of awabi (abalone), Ise ebi (Japanese spiny lobster), sazae (turban shell), and uni (sea urchin) blacken and juices bubble from within. The purpose of the fire isn't only to cook the freshly caught seafood, but to warm the three women after they spent the morning in the sea catching today's meal. It's November and the water is frigid, and now that they're in their 60s and 70s, it takes more time for their aging bodies to recover.
They are part of a five-woman diving crew, and three of the 700 Ama divers remaining in the Toba and Shima area of Mie prefecture—three of only 2,000 remaining in all of Japan. There used to be thousands more.
For more than 2,000 years the Ama have been free diving along the coast of Japan. Once renowned as the powerful, half-naked women of the sea, the Ama created a life scavenging for pearls, shellfish, and seaweed. Legend says they arrived in Japan as a tribe of seafaring nomads. In reality, they are deeply Japanese. To those in Ise-shima, and much of Japan, the Ama are eternal. But time is catching up to them.
The pearls they once truffled out are now cultivated. Abalone and sea urchin will soon be farmed on a mass scale. Most Ama are in their 60s and 70s. They've traded loincloths and skin diving for wetsuits and plastic flippers. With each generation, there are fewer young women willing to brave cold seas and even less economic incentive for the older divers that press on. With every dive their way of life gets closer to joining the countless other trades made obsolete by technology and time.
In that metal shack near the docks of Ise-shima we sit to eat today's catch. Sayuri Nakamura, 64, and Shigeyo Nakayama, 70, serve the items on blocks of wood. They've changed out of their wetsuits and dive masks and into sweatshirts and hats. Shigeyo has a towel wrapped around her head, which in profile gives her the appearance of a Vermeer painting. Her posture is impeccable.
Sayuri is the elder diver of the group. Everyone agrees she's the best and also the most competitive. If she isn't speaking, she's mad about her catch. Today she's quiet. She munches on a grilled onigiri (rice ball) as she hands me one of the blocks of wood with a tiny lobster on it. There are no utensils. We eat with our hands.
Next to me is 62-year-old Yoshino Uemura, who shows me how to squeeze the spiny shell of the ise ebi to break it open and get at the puri-puri (firm) flesh inside. My city fingers struggle. Ignoring the spines, I press the sides of the body until the abdomen cracks open. With a thumb and forefinger I open it wide and take out the meat. Steam rises from the shell as I eat.
Yoshino smiles as she talks and takes on the role of unofficial spokeswoman. After the basic questions, I ask her how the Ama lifestyle is viewed by others—are they impressed or critical? She pauses and says, "Honestly, I have never given a thought to how people view us."
Her Ama sisters nod and continue to eat in silence.
"We do this because it's independent. We go out for the day and bring back fresh food to our families. The rest of the time is ours to spend as we wish. That's it."
They value self-sufficiency their life affords them and the happiness the food they catch brings to the people in their lives. But their independence is shrinking. Their mothers and grandmothers could spend most of their days in the water, but the industrial fishing industry has now made diving for a living unsustainable, and while diving is essential for most Ama to meet ends meet, most now require second and third jobs to supplement their diving income, some run ryokan (Japanese inns) and small family farms.
Many now work at the Ama-themed restaurant near the docks, serving tourists seafood, and performing traditional dances for photo-ops. One of the restaurant employees summed up the arrangement: "We're extremely thankful to have guests come here. It allows us to keep diving and share the culture. But we used to be able to just dive."
These are the Japanese and local government's effort to bring outsiders to Ise-shima, a place without a shinkansen (high-speed train) stop and a location that is typically skipped over on the way from Tokyo-to-Kyoto.
Before our meal, I rode along with Sayuri's crew for their morning shift. The team arrived in two white pickup trucks and quickly loaded their gear onto the boat: flippers, diving masks, tampo (lifesavers with nets in the middle to hold their catch), and iso nomi (a flat, chisel-like tool they use to pry shellfish from the ocean floor). They catch ise ebi and other creatures by hand. No oxygen tanks or snorkels. The Ama are freedivers. They hold their breath.
The fishing boat, captained by Masumi Nakamura, the husband of Sayuri Nakamura, shuttled us out to the bays that line the coast of Mie prefecture. As we sped along, the women fastened and checked their weighted diving belts, tied their white head covers, and shouted to one another over the drone of the diesel engine. In the cockpit, Masumi explained that he never takes people out for the real dives, only demonstrations—today is an exception. And he talks effusively about his wife's skill. "My Sayuri is the best. No doubt about it. No one else comes close to my Sayuri."
At the diving site other teams of Ama were already in the water, bobbing on the surface, hanging onto their tampo life preservers before the next dive. The atmosphere of the diving area was full of sound and energy.
Ama whistle to empty their lungs completely as they surface. Those who cannot whistle call out in full voices as they exhale. Some complain loudly about the cold, or missed catches, while others heckle or join in themselves.
The team spends the morning completing 50-second dives to depths of 4 to 5 meters, 20 to 30 times each, before heading back to the docks to sell the catch to the wholesalers who wait to take it to market. Older Ama are actually able to stay down longer, but take longer to recover after a day of diving.
One by one, the divers pull themselves and their catch onto the boat. They transfer black sea cucumbers from their tampo into blue buckets. The boat speeds back to the docks and the team laughs and shows off the day's catch. When we arrive at the docks they unload, haggle with the wholesalers who await them, and change before meeting back at the shed for lunch.
Many of the Ama also manage their households, making meals for their husbands and sending children off to school before they head out for the morning dive. Diving provides them with extra income and high quality food for their families and the local community where they are revered, but not lauded like rock stars. We tend to mythologize groups like the Ama who maintain traditions, but their reality is a tough life of manual labor in an era of automation. Like shift workers at an auto factory or clerks at a service counter, the Ama are punching the clock on borrowed time.