A group of Haenyeo women in wetsuits, with nets and flotation devices
Revised RomanizationHaenyeo

Haenyeo (also spelled haenyo) (Hangul: 해녀; lit. "sea women") are female divers in the South Korean province of Jeju, whose livelihood consists of harvesting a variety of mollusks, seaweed, and other sea life from the ocean. Known for their independent spirit, iron will and determination, haenyeo are representative of the semi-matriarchal family structure of Jeju.[1]: 1 [2][3]


Jeju's diving tradition dates back to 434 AD.[4]: 100  Originally, diving was an exclusively male profession, with the exception of women who worked alongside their husbands.[4]: 101  The first mention of female divers in literature does not come until the 17th century, when a monograph of Jeju geography describes them as jamnyeo (literally "diving women").[4]: 101 

Museum diorama of haenyeo resting at a fireplace after finishing their work in a day

By the 18th century, female divers, at this point commonly referred to as haenyeo, outnumbered male divers.[5]: 1  Several possible explanations exist for this shift. For instance, in the 17th century, a significant number of men died at sea due to war or deep-sea fishing accidents, meaning that diving became the work of women.[1]: 1 [6] Another explanation is that women tend to have more subcutaneous fat and a higher shivering threshold than men, making them better suited to work in cold waters.[4]: 101  An 18th century document records that taxes of dried abalone were imposed on ordinary people, forcing many women to dive in cold waters while pregnant.[6]

As sea diving became a female-dominated industry, many of the haenyeo subsequently replaced their husbands as the primary laborer.[5][7][8] This trend was especially prominent after the Japanese colonized Korea in 1910 and diving became much more lucrative.[9] Up until this point, much of what the haenyeo harvested was given to the Joseon government as tribute.[9] When the Japanese took over, however, they abolished this tradition, allowing haenyeo to sell their catch at market and make a profit.[9] Additionally, Japanese and Korean merchants hired haenyeo to work for them in Japan and on the Korean mainland as wage-laborers, increasing their financial situations greatly. On Yeonpyeong-ri, an island near Incheon where many haenyeo worked, their wages, on average, constituted 40 to 48 percent of a typical family's total income.[9] The prominent place of haenyeo in Jeju's economy and in their individual family units continued long after Japanese colonization. In the early 1960s, for example, haenyeo harvests accounted for 60% of Jeju's fisheries revenue, and 40% of haenyeo husbands remained unemployed.[4][7]

In society

Because so many families relied on the haenyeo for the majority of their income, a semi-matriarchal society developed on Jeju with the haenyeo at the head of the household.[10][9] On the tiny islets off the coast of Jeju, such as Mara Island, where sea-diving was the sole source of income, this reversal of traditional gender roles was fully realized; men would look after the children and go shopping while the women would bring in money for the family.[10] Other manifestations of Jeju's unique society include men paying a dowry to the family of the bride (a reversal of the custom on the Korean mainland) and families celebrating the birth of girls over the birth of boys.[6][11]

While certain elements of a matriarchal society surfaced in Jeju, they were not enough to completely overcome the predominance of Confucianism. As a result, beyond the domestic sphere, little else about Jeju society was different from what existed on the Korean mainland. For example, men filled all political leadership roles and were the only ones who could perform ancestor-worship ceremonies and inherit property and the familial line. Furthermore, during the era of colonial rule, haenyeo remained peasants, never moving up the chain to become small-business owners or managers of seafood manufacturing plants.[9] Even in the home, most haenyeo remained the primary caregiver and handled at least half of the domestic chores.[4]: 107 

Today, haenyeo are celebrated as one of Jeju's most valued treasures. The Korean government shows its appreciation for the unique contributions of the haenyeo to Jeju's culture by subsidizing their gear and granting them exclusive rights to sell fresh seafood.[10][7] Furthermore, in March 2014, the government requested the UNESCO to add haenyeo to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.[6] Haenyeo were inscribed in UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List from 2016 and enlisted as South Korean Intangible Cultural Property from 2017.

Declining numbers

Like many other historical cultural practices, the sea-diving industry has fallen victim to industrialisation. Beginning in the 1960s, the Korean government sought ways to jumpstart the country's economy in every province. Because Jeju was not a practical place to build factories, the Korean government decided to turn it into an exporter of mandarin oranges. By 1969, a majority of rural workers had joined this new industry. Additionally, about 2% of all land in Jeju was dedicated to farming mandarin oranges. In the 1970s, the government launched another program to bolster Jeju's tourism industry. By 1978, tourism had surpassed agriculture as the island's largest industry.[9]

All of this change had a significant impact on haenyeo numbers. Given alternatives to back-breaking labor in miserable conditions, women abandoned the sea-diving industry in droves.[9] In the five years between 1965 and 1970, numbers dropped from 23,081 to 14,143.[9] Even more damning to the haenyeo way of life, education opportunities and attractive positions in emerging industries have deterred younger girls from becoming haenyeo.[9][12]: 2350  In 1970, 31% of haenyeo were 30 years old or younger, 55% were between 30 and 49 years old and only 14% were 50 or older. As of 2014, however, 98% of haenyeo were over the age of 50.[5]: 2 

Developmental process, gear, diving pattern and harvest

Traditionally, girls started training as haenyeo when they were 11 years old. Beginning in shallow water, trainees worked their way up to more challenging depths. After about seven years of training, a girl was considered a "full-fledged" haenyeo.[4] Today, the oldest haenyeo are over 80 years old, and have been diving for more than 66 years.[13]

The traditional outfit and tools for haenyeo displayed at a museum in Jeju

All together, the tools of a haenyeo consist of a wetsuit, diving mask, fins,[14] gloves, chest weights (to assist diving) an L-shaped weeding hoe, and a net attached to a flotation device.[13] The haenyeo stash their catch in these nets until they are done for the day.[13]

How long the haenyeo spend in the water depends on the season. Before wetsuits were available and all they wore were cotton swimsuits, haenyeo could stay in the water for only up to an hour at a time during the winter months. After an hour, they got out of the water and sat by the fire for 3–4 hours to dry off. After this break, they would jump back into the water for another hour. During the summer months, however, they stayed in the water for up to 3 hours at a time before a break.[10] With the introduction of wetsuits, haenyeo found they could stay in the water for five to six hours at a time, even during the winter.

With each dive, haenyeo plunge up to 30 metres (98 ft) deep and can hold their breath for over three minutes.[10][13] Their harvests consist of abalone, conch, octopus, sea urchins, sea squirt, brown alga, top shell, a variety of sargassum, oysters and sea slugs, etc.[4][10]: 2350 [7][9][12][13] The divers must contend with dangers such as jellyfish, poor weather and sharks.[13][15]


In popular culture

See also


  1. ^ a b "Woman Power Deep Below the Sea". Business Korea. January 2003.
  2. ^ "Families of the World: Korea (1975)". YouTube.
  3. ^ "Documentary on 12 Year Old Korean Haenyeo Diver 1975". YouTube.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Hong, SK (1965). "Hae-nyo, the diving women of Korea". In: Rahn, H; Yokoyama, T (Eds) Physiology of Breath-Hold Diving and the Ama of Japan. United States: National Academy of Sciences - National Research Council: 99–112. ISBN 0-309-01341-0. Archived from the original on 2010-12-29. Retrieved 2013-10-06.((cite journal)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  5. ^ a b c Lee, Joo-Young; Lee, Hyo Hyun (August 13, 2014). "Korean Women Divers 'Haenyeo': Bathing Suits and Acclimatization to Cold". Journal of the Human-Environment System. 17: 001–011. doi:10.1618/jhes.17.001.
  6. ^ a b c d Sang-hun, Choe (2014-03-29). "Hardy Divers in Korea Strait, 'Sea Women' Are Dwindling". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-11-08.
  7. ^ a b c d Choe Sang-Hun (29 March 2014). "Hardy Divers in Korea Strait, 'Sea Women' Are Dwindling". New York Times. Retrieved 31 March 2014.
  8. ^ Byun, Kyeonghwa; Kang, Eun-Jung (September 2015). "Spatial Transformation and Functions of Bulteok as Space for Haenyeo on Jeju Island, Korea". Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering. 14 (3): 533–540. doi:10.3130/jaabe.14.533. S2CID 110182301.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Gwon, Gwi-Sook (2015). "Changing labor processes of women's work: the haenyo of Jeju Island". Korean Studies. 29: 114–136. doi:10.1353/ks.2006.0006.
  10. ^ a b c d e f "Episode 5: Haenyeo Female Divers" (Video). Youtube. Travel Tours Korea LA18. Archived from the original on 2021-12-21. Retrieved November 8, 2015.
  11. ^ "The Mermaids of Jeju – Korean Female Divers Haenyeo | Official Korea Tourism Organization". english.visitkorea.or.kr. Archived from the original on 2014-08-14. Retrieved 2015-11-08.
  12. ^ a b Lee, Joung-Hun; Iwasa, Yoh (July 9, 2011). "Tourists and traditional divers in a common fishing ground". Ecological Economics. 70 (12): 2350–2360. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2011.07.013.
  13. ^ a b c d e f Hutchens, Jeff (March 25, 2013). "The Diving Women of Jeju (Part 1)" (Video). Youtube. Imagine Your Korea.
  14. ^ Haenyeo, Sea Women of Korea's Jeju Island Part I
  15. ^ "Haenyeo, Female Divers". Chejudo Tourist Association. 1997. Archived from the original on October 21, 2009. Retrieved 2013-10-06.
  16. ^ HaenyeoFilm.com Archived 2013-12-03 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ HaenyeoDocumentary.com Archived 2013-12-02 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ IMDb Page
  19. ^ Chung, Joo-won (2016-04-19). "Family film ready to pull at heartstrings of Korea, China". Yonhap News. Retrieved 2016-07-25.
  20. ^ Siemsen, Thora (2017-05-22). "A Diving Woman: In Conversation with Japanese Breakfast". Out Magazine. Pride Publishing, Inc. Retrieved 2019-08-01.
  21. ^ "Endlings at A.R.T. Starts February 26".
  22. ^ "NYTW / Endlings".