Ama Divers in Wajima Fighting to Preserve Tradition; Recovering from Noto Quake

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Natsuki Kadoki, who works as an ama in Wajima City, Ishikawa Prefecture, speaks in font of ships which are moored at a port, unable to go out fishing.

Traditional fishing done by ama, women who skin-dive for abalone and sazae turban shells, in the city of Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, is facing a crisis in the aftermath of the major earthquake that struck the Noto Peninsula on New Year’s Day.

The elevation of the seabed and damage to facilities caused by the quake are expected to make it difficult for ama divers to resume their work this summer. Some older ama divers are considering retirement following the earthquake. But divers in other parts in the country are offering a helping hand.

Ama fishing in Wajima is a nationally designated important intangible folk cultural property. The traditional fishing method in the city reportedly got its start in 1569, after 13 male and female divers came to the area from what is now the city of Munakata in Fukuoka Prefecture. The number of ama in Wajima is 170, the second largest in the country, following Toba City in Mie Prefecture, at about 370.

“We have to protect the culture, but we can’t even dive in the sea right now,” said Natsuki Kadoki, 43, who heads an association to preserve and promote ama fishing in Wajima. She has worked as an ama for 27 years.

At peak fishing season in summer, divers catch abalone and sazae shells around Hegura Island, about 50 kilometers off Wajima and Nanatsujima islands, about 20 kilometers off the city.

Courtesy of Ishikawa Prefecture
An ama diver from Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, at work

However, the land elevation shift caused by the quake made the depth of Wajima Port too shallow, leaving many fishing boats stranded.

Although the spring is supposed to be the season for wakame seaweed fishing, there are no prospects for when the port might be restored, due to serious damage to port facilities, large refrigerators, seawater pumping machines and other equipment.

In addition, ama divers know the waters and reef locations to get a good catch because of their extensive experiences, but the quake is believed to have changed the seabed’s geographical layout. It is likely to take five to 10 years for ama divers to reacquaint themselves with the new features.

The number of ama in Wajima has declined from around 200 in 2015 to about 170 now due to reduced demand in the restaurant industry during the COVID-19 pandemic and the sea desertification, or disappearance of the seaweed on which abalone feed. The majority of ama divers are aged 65 or older, and some of them are considering retiring.

After the Jan. 1 earthquake, about two-thirds of the ama divers in the area have evacuated outside of the city. If they will be unable to do ama fishing for an extended period of time, it may become difficult to pass on their expertise to younger generations.

However, there is a growing movement around the country to support the troubled ama divers in Wajima.

At Ama Hut Satoumian, a facility designed to simulate the experience of an ama hut, where divers rest and warm themselves around a fire, in the city of Shima, Mie Prefecture, local ama diver Miyuki Taniguchi, 46, displays photographs of Wajima ama divers and solicits donations for them.

“I was saddened to hear that older ama divers were saying the fishing might not resume while they are still able to dive,” said Taniguchi. “I want to stand by them as a colleague.”

Fishery cooperatives in Kuji City, Iwate Prefecture, which was used to shoot NHK’s popular morning drama serial “Amachan,” and Munakata City in Fukuoka Prefecture, are also soliciting contributions.

Despite the difficulties, some Wajima ama divers have started moves to resume their work, inspecting damage to their tools and checking the fishing grounds that were elevated in the quake.

“I saw dried up, dead sazae. But it was the first step for me to grasp new geographical features,” said Naoko Matsushita, 52.

Kadoki is also looking toward the future. “The support we’ve received nationwide is encouraging us a lot,” she said. “We can’t just sit idly by. We’ll get back to work as soon as possible.”

Courtesy of Miyuki Taniguchi
Miyuki Taniguchi, right, an ama diver in the city of Shima, Mie Prefecture, calls for donations for Wajima ama divers with her colleague at Ama Hut Satoumian in the city. They also made explanations available in English for foreign tourists.