Japan's aging 'ama' divers defy tides of time
By Antoine Bouthier, AFPSHIMA, Japan--Mieko Kitai takes a huge gulp of air as she surfaces from the clear, blue waters of Japan's Pacific coast with a large abalone in her hand.
September 25, 2013, 12:08 am TWN
Now in her 70s, the dive — with nothing more than a mask — does not get any easier and the pickings get slimmer with every passing year.
But she and her fellow divers or “ama” — which roughly translates to “sea woman” — reap the fruits of the sea in a way that has been practiced in parts of Japan for thousands of years.
“Finally, I got one,” she says as she climbs aboard the boat and pulls the mask off her weather-beaten face.
Kitai is one of a dozen free divers who gathered on a recent sunny day in Shima, Mie prefecture, in western Japan.
They chatter loudly from excitement and necessity — some have suffered hearing loss because of the high pressures experienced at depth — as they rub their masks with a kind of slimy algae to prevent fogging.
Some join hands and utter a Shinto prayer for those they have lost, including an 80-year-old who died last year on a dive. “Her heart gave out,” said one of them.
Each has a weight belt around their waist to give them a little help when they jump overboard into water up to 20 meters deep. Some are gone as long as a minute before they surface again with a shellfish or an urchin.
“Today, the fishing was better than I thought it would be,” said Kitai as she dropped an octopus and several turban shells, a prized shellfish delicacy, into her catch net.
“In the past you could get as many as 40 abalone in a day, but now getting four counts as a good day,” said fellow free diver Sumiko Nakagawa, her face lined by her years in the salty water under the beating sun.
Pollution and overfishing have taken their toll on abalone, the main source of income for these women, with the creature's population dropping by 90 percent in the last 40 years in Japan.
A kilogram of wild abalone sells for around 8,000 yen (US$80), although most consumed in Japan are now farmed.