Ama (海女, "sea women") are Japanese divers famous for collecting pearls, though traditionally their main catch is seafood. The vast majority of ama are women.
There are several sea occupations that are pronounced "ama" and several words that refer to sea occupation.
While one definition of ama specifically refers to divers, another definition refers to fisherpersons in general.
Japanese tradition holds that the practice of ama may be 2,000 years old.
Records of female pearl divers, or ama, date back as early as AD 927 in Japan's Heian period. Early ama were known to dive for seafood and were honored with the task of retrieving abalone for shrines and imperial emperors. Ama traditionally wear white, as the colour represents purity and also to possibly ward off sharks. Traditionally and even as recently as the 1960s, ama dived wearing only a loincloth, but in the 20th century, the divers adopted an all-white sheer diving uniform in order to be more presentable while diving. Even in modern times, ama dive without scuba gear or air tanks, making them a traditional sort of free-diver.
Pearl diving ama were considered rare in the early years of diving. However, Mikimoto Kōkichi's discovery and production of the cultured pearl in 1893 produced a great demand for ama. He established the Mikimoto Pearl Island in Toba and used the ama's findings to grow his business internationally. Nowadays, the pearl-diving ama are viewed as a tourist attraction at Mikimoto Pearl Island. The number of ama continue to dwindle as this ancient technique becomes less and less practiced, due to disinterest in the new generation of women and the dwindling demand for their activity. In the 1940s, 6,000 ama were reported active along the coasts of Japan, while today ama practice at numbers more along the scale of 60 or 70 divers in a generation.
Women began diving as ama as early as 12 and 13 years old, taught by elder ama. Despite their early start, divers are known to be active well into their 70s and are rumored to live longer due to their diving training and discipline. In Japan, women were considered to be superior divers due to the distribution of their fat and their ability to hold their breath. The garments of the ama have changed throughout time, from the original loincloth to the white sheer garbs and eventually to the modern diving wetsuit.
The world of the ama is one marked by duty and superstition. One traditional article of clothing that has stood the test of time is their headscarves. The headscarves are adorned with symbols such as the seiman and the douman,[clarification needed] which have the function of bringing luck to the diver and warding off evil. The ama are also known to create small shrines near their diving location where they will visit after diving in order to thank the gods for their safe return.
The ama were expected to endure harsh conditions while diving, such as freezing temperatures and great pressures from the depths of the sea. Through the practice, many ama were noted to lose weight during the months of diving seasons. Ama practiced a breathing technique in which the divers would release air in a long whistle once they resurfaced from a dive. This whistling became a defining characteristic of the ama, as this technique is unique to them.
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