The word ‘Ama’ means ‘Sea women’.
The Ama are believed to have been in existence for 2000 years.
The Ama women specialised in free diving to depths of 30 feet, they had breathing skills which allowed them to hold their breath for extended lengths of time. Diving naked or wearing just a loin cloth( Fundoshi) they would work for 4 hours per day gathering abalone, octopus, lobsters, sea urchins and seaweed.Until the advent of the cultured pearl farming industry : the discovery of a pearl was a fortunate and profitable bonus for the Ama gatherers.
In 1893 Kokichi Mikimoto created the first cultured pearl, and by 1914 he had established pearl farms in the South Sea at his oyster beads near to Ishigaki Island. The Ama were employed to use their unique skills to take care of the cultured pearl farms. The role of the Ama was to collect oysters from the seabed so that the pearl producing nucleus could be added. The Ama would then carefully return the oyster to the seabed. This process required the Ama to hold their breath for 2 minutes. When they reached the surface of the ocean following a dive the Ama would exhale slowly making a whistling sound which was known as ‘Isobue’.
While the traditional Ama divers wore only a ‘Fundoshi’ ( Loincloth) and a ‘Tenugui’ ( Bandana), the Ama who worked for Mikimoto wore a full white diving costume. The women were attached by a rope to a buoy made of wood, they would use the buoy to hold and to rest beside at the surface between dives.
The Ama women continued to dive into old age. Some Ama divers were recorded as being over 90 years of age. These veterans of the seabeds have practiced the art for many years , and have spent much of their life at Sea.
With the modernisation of the Japanese fisheries, this ancient practice is dwindling.