The Ama of
Toba & Shima
Ama work consists of diving into the sea to catch ocean treasure, such as abalone, other snails and seaweed. Their fishing methods evolved over time from a struggle with nature, to a refined method of coexistence imbued with knowledge.
Who are the Ama?
Ama are women fishers whose job is to catch abalone and turban snails by breath-hold diving; no other women practice this style of fishing.
Large numbers of abalone shells and awabiokoshi (abalone tools) made of deer antler, discovered in the ruins of Shirahama (Uramura Town, Shima), have been dated as 3,000 years old. These fragments suggest ama existed here since that time. Moreover, ama appeared in the Manyoushuu (early book of poetry) and other early historical records. Thus, ama have been active on the Ise Peninsula for thousands of years. They continue to protect their fishing traditions today.
Why did this ancient fishing method, which requires physical skill and knowledge, persist so long into the era of modern technology?
Ama dive one breath at a time until they reach their limit, known as a ‘50-second battle’. They repeat these dives in cold water, a hard job. Once back on land, however, they become happy, carefree characters. Laughing voices can always be heard in the ama goya (hut) where ama warm their tired, cold bodies.
Ama appreciate the bounty of nature while they dive. They are tough and lively women who rely on the sea for their livelihood. Furthermore, they have kept their promise faithfully to protect the natural resources of the sea, such as sazae (turban snails), awabi (abalone) and seaweed. Moreover, ama have been ocean defenders, as suggested by this folk song, “If you wait for three years, awabi will be become a cute bride."
Ama are a very important part of the life of Shima Peninsula. At the same time, the living ‘ama culture supports a rich daily life, celebrations for auspicious occasions and festivals.
In recent years, there are concerns about the aging population of ama and the lack of successors. I hope you will gain a great appreciation of ‘ama' – important cultural treasures of Japan. May they continue to be well.
Witness with Your Own Eyes: Ama of Toba-Shima, 2013, p.2