Ama Diver Numbers in Free Fall over Poor Fishing, Social Factors

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An ama dives down from the surface of the sea in Shima, Mie Prefecture.

The number of ama, women who skin dive for abalone and sazae turban shells, has dropped by half in the past decade, according to interviews with local governments and fishing cooperatives in several regions.

In addition to a chronic shortage of successors, there has been poor fishing due to rocky shore denudation, the disappearance of seaweed from rocky areas. This traditional fishing method, which has a history of more than 1,000 years, has been the subject of various conservation efforts.

Poor catches

During the summer season, Chieko Okuda, 70, an ama diver with more than 40 years of experience, spends 90 minutes a day diving for abalone in the Kuzaki district in Toba, Mie Prefecture, which overlooks Ise Bay.

When Okuda first started diving as an ama, she experienced many hardships. For example, she was swept away by the tide, which made her head spin. But now that she has more experience, her skills are second to none. On a good day, her net bag is filled with abalone.

In the Showa era (1926-1989), it was said that ama divers made more money than salaried workers. However, it is now very rare for them to earn several hundred thousand yen a month, and her fellow divers from the old days have retired one after another. “I’m fine now. But my physical strength is declining. In a few years, I will have to think about retirement,” she said.

The cities of Toba and Shima in Mie Prefecture are blessed with abundant seafood and shallow seas suitable for breath-hold diving, making them the most active ama fishing areas in the nation. Records show that there were about 6,000 ama divers in these areas just after the end of World War II, but the number has dropped to about 500. Due to the lack of successors caused by depopulation, the average age of an ama has risen to about 70 years old.

In recent years, poor fishing conditions have added to the problem of a decreasing number of ama. Abalone and other creatures have been suffering from rocky shore denudation, the serious problem of the loss of seaweed that they depend on for food.

Abalone catches have dropped from about 750 tons in 1966 to about 30 tons in recent years due to infestations of sea urchins that feed on marine plants, and rising ocean temperatures that kill seaweed.

“I can’t make a living. I don’t think there are any young people who want to become ama divers,” an ama diver said.

Lack of replacements

According to a nationwide survey conducted in 2010 by the Toba Sea-Folk Museum, which studies ama culture, there were a total of 2,174 ama divers in 18 prefectures. When The Yomiuri Shimbun inquired with the 18 prefectures and local fishing cooperatives in April this year, the number of ama had declined to about 1,220.

Although the number recorded in Iwate Prefecture increased by 18 to 103 due to an oversight in the 2010 survey, the remaining 17 prefectures saw a decrease in the number, with five prefectures, including Miyagi, Wakayama and Oita, dropping to single digits. There were no ama in Hokkaido and Kagoshima prefectures.

Tottori Prefecture said, “Older ama divers are retiring, while new ama are scarce.” Thirteen prefectures, including Ishikawa and Fukuoka, cited a lack of replacements due to aging and depopulation as the reason for the decline. Six prefectures, including Mie, Shizuoka and Tokushima, also cited a decrease in ama income due to poor catches as one of the reasons for the declining numbers.

Cultural heritage goal

Ama divers have a long history, appearing in the Manyoshu, an anthology of poems mainly compiled in the Nara period (710-784). There is a growing movement in many areas to preserve ama culture for future generations.

Ishikawa and Mie prefectures, where local ama divers are designated as an important intangible folk-culture asset, established an ama culture study group comprised of academic experts in 2019.

The group is studying the possibility of registering the culture of ama divers as an intangible cultural heritage with UNESCO.

“We want to preserve for future generations the value and significance of ama culture, which protects marine resources and maintains sustainable fishing,” an official of the Ishikawa prefectural government said.

Kuji in Iwate Prefecture, the setting for the NHK television series “Amachan,” charges a ¥500 fee to show tourists how ama divers catch marine products every summer.

Last year, about 3,000 to 4,000 people visited the site each month. “It has become a pillar of tourism and a valuable source of income for ama divers other than [their regular] fishing,” said the head of the industry, commerce and tourism division of the municipal government.

Some municipalities also make attempts to recruit ama divers from outside who have passed down their skills within their families and villages.

In Munakata, Fukuoka Prefecture, two women from outside the prefecture were hired by the city as local vitalization cooperators and trained as ama divers for three years. They became professional ama in 2021.

In April of this year, two other women entered Suisan College run by Fukui Prefecture and others as apprentice ama.

Eri Tamaki, 31, returned to her hometown to enter the school, using the prefectural government’s interest-free loan system. “I was able to take on the challenge without hesitation. I want to learn traditional skills from senior ama and fishermen,” she said.

Toba Sea-Folk Museum Director Daizo Hiraga said, “If regions with ama divers cooperate and share their wisdom, the culture of ama that Japan is proud of will continue.”