EVA VAN DER ZAND
While I was in Japan I made a photo documentary about Amawomen, during my stay in Toba. I wondered: Which stories support a matriarch society?
Water, no beginning no ending.
An article about free divers by Eva Christina van der Zand
Fight for the ecosystem in the water is what Ama divers do in a subtle feminine way of living. Ama woman (海人), the legendary women divers of Japan and South Korea. They have been practicing sustainable fishing for hundreds of years, but climate change together with overfishing is bringing them face to face with an uncertain future. These women are Japanese divers that traditionally collect pearls. Nowadays they focus on seafood and seaweed. Such as shellfish, lobsters, seaweed, oysters, octopus and sea urchins. The practice of Ama may be 2000 years old. Traditionally the women wear only a loincloth. Currently, the women dive without scuba gear or air tanks. This makes them a traditional sort of free-diver.
A whistling sound travels over the water. Now and then a woman comes to the surface and makes a whistling sound named: Isobue. It means literally sea whistle. It is the sound of air coming back in their lungs after a deep dive. The woman do this so the air is not coming to quick. The woman also have a unique way of breathing. I ask them “How do you train your diving breath?” One of the woman shares “My lung capacity is trained since I was a little girl. Now I can easily hold my breath for a couple of minutes.”... This makes me realize how indifferent many people are to their way of breathing. In our society most people “over breath”, since we live in a society with chronic stress. Breathing out carbon dioxide and breathing in too much oxygen. When people hold their breath they build up CO2 and deplete O2 in their bloodstream. The longer people hold their breath people become 'hypoxic' which is a state of very low O2 levels in your blood. Their breathing way is definitely fresh air for breath. Will we be able to develop new healthy breathing cultures around the globe?
It is 13.00 and the woman come back out of the sea. They seem to have become half fish half human. They wear black diving suits and carry colorful handmade baskets from wood and plastics. Most of them seem really old and have crooked backs.They come together on the shore and warm up in their self build “Ama Hut’s”. It is a beautiful bay in the area of Toba city. Toba has the biggest population of Ama divers in Japan. One of the Ama woman shares that 25 years ago it was super clear, now the water is foggy. What happened to their environment?
It is remarkable that this woman tradition stayed alive in high-tech Japan. One of the Japanese ladies shares that although Japan can be seen as a patriarchal society, this job is only done by woman. This old way of living is a unique woman culture, while the job is rather though. Despite all the difficulties, the Ama woman are staying full with joy a “hand picking” culture. Often it seems, how more close we stay to the body, how more joyful we are. How much joy we experience on this earth is in our own hands.
Ama woman only needed one warning from nature. They directly reacted responsible after a small innovation that damaged the resources development. Orie Iwasaki tries to give me some more insights about the development of this unique culture. She is a woman from the village Toba. She is part of the Ama community. She takes us to a hidden spot where the ama woman dive, so they can do their job quitely. One of the innovations the ama woman did was changing the diving clothes in 1964. Instead of using thin cotton, they started to use wetsuits and goggles. This made it possible to stay longer in the water without getting cold. The year that his happened the seafood population dropped drastically. The ama woman decided that the diving hours should be regulated. They believe that rules are always necessary. From then on the ama woman could dive only twice a day for 70 minutes. They made sure that the rules are respected in their ama diving culture. As a result, the sea food population didn’t decrease but stayed in balance.
Orie connects me to one of the ama woman named Aiko. Aiko dived into the unknown, and she dared to let go of the busy city Tokyo. =She is 30 years, which is relatively young for an Ama woman. She grew up in Tokyo and is a photographer. She missed the natural life and went to learn from the Ama woman. For her it is important to live a natural life, and a natural rhythm with the sea. She tells that “The sea food I pick are mainly avalons, of 4 years old. I also pick Tulban shells and seaweed.” Orie shares that some women are more skilled than the other, that’s the only difference. Zero technology or machine help for the Ama woman. There can be spoken of a disinterest in machinery. If they catch smaller ones or sea creatures they don’t need they are put back with care in the sea. “The average age of the ama woman group I am diving in is 73.” The woman keep on diving until old age. The older divers are generally able to stay a longer time under the water than the younger. Usually they also have another job, typically working on a farm. Some Japanese people believe that the majority of ama are women because of how their bodies differ from men: The fat on a female body is distributed different. Aiko’s story is an inspiration for everyone who dares to let go of city life, and go find satisfaction as an outsider with a total new way of living and interacting with nature.
When a baby girl is born in Ama communities it is celebrated with red rice. It means that the Ama culture can keep on growing. So Aiko started a project for local children of the village. The children are not in touch with the sea anymore, they learn that it is dirty and dangerous. The build up fear for the sea. This she wants to change and make the sea again accessible for them. Although not enough girls want to continue their families tradition. Aging and the lack of young successors have, however, reduced the number of professional ama and endangered the continuation of the occupation. These women learn from a young age to lead a natural live. A Council for Ama Promotion started and it maintains that woman divers keep independent professionals, practicing natural conservation by not collecting too many marine resources at one time and that they are the central part, or kizuna bonding, of fishing communities. Through registering the ama culture on the world heritage list, Professor An regards it not only as a traditional and ethnic culture of Japan or Korea but also as an East Asian “maritime culture” in light of dive fishing industry in globalization, and wants to find and share a universal value of human beings.
A friend that is in deep research in breathing practices is also touched by the story of the Ama woman. She writes a poem about fighting for what you believe in.
Let the light
Fight for expression,
Whether heavy or tight,
For might have a fight,
In the darkness of light,
Is it in your sight
Of your eyes light
Let up the kite,
In the high light
Of your expression fight
Stop the fight
And let the light
by Carolina Koran de Ruiter
Reading more about this fascinating way of living I realize these women are really heroines. Shiho Tanimura is a Japanese author and working on a serial novel, “Isobue (beach calling)”. She support the woman and encourages their freedom “If there is a sea in front of you, you need nothing but yourself to live on diving, whatever country you are in. It is a noteworthy way of life for women who want to be independent in modern society,” Ms. Tanimura says.
This is a shout out to everyone who cares about these heroin’s and the story they carry out to the world. This beautiful authentic way of living of the Ama woman has a lot to give to the world. I think back about my life how I learned to lead a natural life... not so natural at all. So, very grateful that I came in contact with these breathing legends that teach me a new way of living. I hope that they will keep the tradition alive. So that the Ama freedivers tradition does not disappear in the deep darkness between the Sea of Japan and the East Chine Sea. The work without a beginning or end. These half sea creatures, half land creatures deserve a future to keep their water rhythm intact. Don’t let these magnificent woman disappear in the oceans and hopefully you gained inspiration from their way of being.
Ama women Ganbatte Kudasai!! (Keep up the good work) 頑張ってください
Written by Eva Christina van der Zand