Ruth Linhart | Japanology | Photos | Ama ukiyoe | All Ama-articels

An Ama diver of Katada goes out in an ippaibune-boat with the boat-man, her husband
A t least at first sight the ama-divers have stepped over the strict borders that have been set for women in nearly all cultures of the world. As the German ethnologist, Klaus E. Müller, in his detailed book about the Ethnology of the gender-conflict says, women universally were placed throughout history in the inner part (Binnenbereich) of society - with the familial fire-place in the centre, within the hut, the tent or the house.1) In Japan, to mention only one little example, the word kanai (my wife) provides evidence of this division of the world, which allows men to have a view above the far horizon but forces women to be content with a glimpse at their own narrow neighbourhood. Everywhere in the world, as Müller states, even in the very highly developed cultures of Greece, Rome and the modern European cultures, this division was defended by the argument that nature or even god(s) want it like that 2) - because these arguments are hard to oppose.

The ama- divers contradict this female stereotype and therefore have been an amazing phenomenon to people outside the fishing and diving communities until today. One must not be surprised, therefore, that their real existence and life-style differ to a great extent, from that of romanticised legend and the visions that many men have. There is the romantic pearldiver, who no longer exists outside the tourist centres; there is the beautiful ama of the ukiyoe, who is often shown as a seductive water-nymph, offering her shell to some prince. Also men are irritated when thinking about the strong ama women that ama are reported to be. Ama divers are exotic also in Japan. Tourists in Mie-prefecture get to know them as slim girls, feeding fish in aquariums or playing with dolphins in amusement-parks. In pearlbreeding-centres like Kashikojima visitors can take souvenir photos in front of pasteboard ama. At such times you see thern in their white isogi, a dress they rarely wear in reality today. By the way, the ama dress of the Shima-region in Central Japan, shows the history of growing prudishness: before Showa ama only wore a koshimaki (loincloth) and a tenugui (towel) around their hair; from that time onwards they added a blouse, then trousers and for about ten years proper diving-dresses they called 'wetsuits'. In the real-life situation of Katada, a diving and fishing village in Shima, Mie-prefecture, where I was in 1978 and again in 1983 when I spent a longer time in an ama household, I encountered ama as hardworking middle-aged women. Their working places are the reefs under the blue surface of the sea to which the object of their work, the awabi (abalone), cling.

Sendô or tamae are the names given to the men who own the boats in which the ama go out for work. There are three different kinds of boat-diving in Katada: ipponbiki or ippaibune, haikara and okedo. In the first type of boat one ama goes out with one boat-man, usually her husband. She dives to the farthest and deepest points. The second type carries three to five ama and okedo means that one boat-man takes with him five to seven ama who dive not very far from. the coast. The ama share their income with these boat-men, okedo-ama give him 15%, haikara-ama 25% and ipponbiki-ama 50%, unless he is her husband.

The second type of diving work involves swimming out to sea without a boat. These ama are called kachido-ama, and they are content to work in more shallow grounds. Diving time is strictly limited from March to 14 September; there are also strict rules governing the daily diving time: in spring one hour in the morning and during the warmer period up to two hours in the afternoon. The objects of the ama work are awabi (abalone), sazae (turbo cornutus) and uni (sea-urchins). After work the ama bring their daily harvest to the awabi market. After that the best part of the day begins - they rest in the ama-hut, washing, changing dresses, warming up, all activities that are necessary for withstanding the coldness of the water next day.

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I would now like to consider the changes that modern times have brought to ama work. First, let me begin by reproducing an official statement issued by an official of the women's section of the fishing corporation of Katada in 1983: 3)

'In earlier times it might have been that ama could not lead an economically safe life, but today the men are all working somewhere nearby. Thus, the husbands of today's ama - as the ama are diving only one season and are at home in winter - are not lazy men."

Fifty years ago in 1933, an old ama of Kuuzaki told Segawa Kyôko, who published a famous ama monograph in 1955:

'In my village only the wives of the priest, the doctor and the teachers do not dive. People think that it is a pity for them, that they cannot dive, even if their husbands die. Here is one place where women can surpass men. Village women can bring up their children when their husbands die, whereas it would be a serious problem if a man became a widower. I think in town women have decided not to work. Here is a region where women dive in the sea and rush to their fields, where women work hard and take care of their men. "4)

These two statements indicate that men worked less in the past than today. Also the position of women seems to have changed: the old woman before the Second World War sees herself economically independent, not so the woman, who was young after the Second World War and is now in her fifties.

But, before we delve further into the problem of social status of men and women, let us have a look at the changes in ama work that I was able to discover in Katada in 1983. That ama work has greatly changed, ama confirmed daily in their conversation 5). Many changes have been for the better from the standpoint of convenience, security and health of the ama, though not necessarily for the sea and fruits of the sea. I have already mentioned the dress: the rubber diving-dress called 'wet-suit' that Katada ama have worn since 1976 keeps the body warm and protects it from sharp reefs and encounters with sea-creatures. At the same time, the fishing corporation decided on limiting diving time. The reason for this was that with the new warmer and safer diving-suits a lot of women found themselves able to dive for longer periods of time, even in cold water. Without time-limitation this would have led to a rapid exhaustion of awabi. But the ama do not like the time limits, because it puts even more stress on their work than before. They dive without snorkel and oxygen, as they only have about one minute for diving, looking for awabi, cutting the awabi from the cliffs and coming up again. Now, as I have already mentioned, they may dive one hour in the morning and one hour in the aftemoon in spring and two hours twice a day in summer. This does not give them enough time for recuperation between. It is like piece-work in a factory, the time-pressure is enormous. Similarly, as in a factory there is also strict control of each dive exercised by a harbour-representative. Another change is the shortening of the diving season as a whole. In earlier years diving began soon after the New Year celebrations.

The sendô have changed to motor-boats since the fifties. They also no longer have to pull out the ama by their own strength but do this with the help of an 'enjin.' Medical care has improved and ama are no longer required to dive until the day of childbirth. Electricity and water were installed in many ama-goya (ama-) huts and the ama-goya which in former times were built with wood and bamboo and had straw-thatched roofs,6) are now made with corrugated iron. The living standards in the former poor fishing-villages have improved to a degree which the ama of 1933 could not possibly have imagined. Every family has at least one car, a boat, of course a telephone, a room-cooler etc. Katada, whose inhabitants often fled from local poverty to America in the Meiji- and Taishô-eras, has joined the prosperity of post-war Japan. Yet, along with such improvements, the old traditions and mutual solidarity seem to have become weaker and the whole ama profession is in danger. There are 120 ama in Katada. Kachido-ama, who do not need as much skill and training as a boat-ama, have increased in number and boat ama, the so-called puro no ama (professional ama) have decreased, so that the number of ama in a boat has become smaller and the harvest richer. But in spite of this the daughters of the ama do not want, and their parents do not urge them, to take up ama work after school as the now older ama did in their young days. The young girls go to school until they are 18, then work, get married and have children. Whereas the old ama continued diving in spite of marriage and children, the young people are also following the prevailing trends of post-war Japan. In 1983 there was no mother diving whose child was younger than two years and could visit a nursery or a kindergarten.

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We return to the (for me) crucial question, whether modern times have brought changes in the position of men and women in the diving community of Katada. It is generally believed that ama are strong women with a much higher status in their community and family than middle-class Japanese women. This assumption may be based on statements like the following of Iwata Junichi, who published a book about the ama of Shima in 1939. He wrote:

" Women have from old times been the sovereigns over production. Although you hear from fishermen: ' In such and such a village many wives are deciding things but in our village men are the boss,' in reality the ama always have the power and the men could only be called their assistants." 7)

In addition, Iwata describes how the women not only dive but do all the house-work and upbringing of children as well and, unlike their husbands, have not a minute of leisure. Iwata concludes that this responsibility brings women self-confidence! I quoted also the old woman of 1933 who laid stress on her economic independence (in case her husband died) but at the same time mentioned hard work as a kind of price for this.

Segawa Kyôko herself during her visits to ama communities recognised the high valuation accorded to ama work, but also noted that this by no means implied female dominance in the family and the community. She saw that women had to give their boat-men a surprisingly high percentage of their income and that they had troubles with mothers-in-Iaw and boatmen if they did not fulfil their high expectations. Segawa, in the introduction of her ama monograph, tells how "A hard-working daughter was courted from all sides because a man through the work of such a wife could become rich after twenty years, buy a ship and a house and even try to be successful in awabi-dealing." Men appreciated in women their working capability and self-confidence, quite contrary to urban conditions, Segawa continues.

Literature about the ama profession and also statements of older ama in Katada seem to indicate that women in ama communities gained prestige, first, through their work and only second because of their capability for childbirth, which in most societies is the main reason for respecting women. What is still unanswered is the question whether ama in the past did really step over that border of "the inner part of the society" and managed to cross the circle of that "knowledge in boundaries" (Wissen in Grenzen) 8) which women are allowed to adopt in most societies. Of course, from a feminist point of view one hopes for a society that could serve as a model for more female participation and equal treatment. But I am afraid that even in the former ama communities the patriarchal norms and values regulated society.

Ama had, and have, a highly specialised knowledge about diving. But did this knowledge bring them influence outside their narrow ama world, outside their boats and huts? It seems that, even inside their ama world, where they did a typical if female collecting task, they were not free to decide for themselves; rather, they were controlled by men and other women from morning to night. Also the good income they earned was spent mainly by their husbands on leisure and other pursuits. It is a question which still has to be answered by further research whether they were independent persons deciding issues for themselves or were dominated by their husbands, their sons and their mothers-in-Iaw, who internalised the aims of a patriarchal society.

At the present time, Katada men clearly represent the responsibility, control and formal sanctions towards the outside world.9) The means of production belong to men; men occupy the main offices in the mighty fishing corporations. No doubt, in the past ama won the respect of the community because the community was dependent on their work. Segawa heard in 1952 from the people of Hekurarajima:

2At the time of the Japanese-style boats women were respected. Now everywhere the income of women is some degrees lower than that of the men. Awabi-diving can no longer support a household."10)

Also in Katada female income is no longer the main source of income for a family and ama work is no longer the only work that women can find in the village.

Bearing in mind that further research is planned, what preliminary conclusions can be drawn? The German sociologist, Helge Pross, stated in a famous phrase that " Women are guest workers in a male society."11) This does not seem to have been true for ama in the past but it has become reality today. Ama in former times at least did not have to doubt the necessity of their work. Although today many more Japanese women, middle-class women, work and have to work in order to sustain the industry of the country and to afford their high living standards, the attitude towards ama work seems to have changed. All working women are today beset with a certain feeling of guilt towards their husbands but mainly towards their children. This feeling of guilt, by the way, enables men to approach women as a convenient labour-reserve.

The very western normative image of the professional housewife and mother has, through television and education, reached even the remotest ama villages and is diminishing the prestige of the professional ama. Ama work seems to be on its way to becoming a hobby (as the wife of the head of the fishing corporation called her ama work). Or it becomes part-time work for those financially not as well off that they can afford not to work at all. Therefore, whereas in 1983 ama were still proud to be divers and to earn a lot of money, not one of their daughters wanted to follow in the foot-steps of her mother.

There seems to be a danger to the ama profession not only because of the growing pollution, technical developments and international trade, which brings awabi cheaper from far away countries to the Japanese gourmet than from his own shores. But also modern patriarchalism is endangering the basis of professional ama work.


1) K. E. Müller, Die bessere und die schlechtere Hälfte: Ethnologie des Geschlechterkonflikts Frankfurt, 1984, pp. 261, 297f.
2) Müller, pp. 15ff, 298.
3) Interview with Otawa Tamako, 4th August 1983.
4) Segawa Kyôko, Ama, Tôkyô: Mirai-sha, 1975 (Reprint of 1955 edition), p. 31.
5) All remarks about ama and ama-work in Katada are based on daily conversations with the people of Katada and especially an interview with the head of the fishing-corporation, with officials of the women's section of the fishing-corporation and with other ama during my stay in Katada in July and August 1983.
6) Tanaka Noyo, Amatachi no shiki, published by Katô Masaki, Tokyo: Shinjuku Shobô,1983,
7) lwata Junichi, Shima no ama, Toba: Shima Bunka Kenkyukai, 1971 (Reprint of 1939 edition), pp. 1f.
8) Müller, pp. 331ff.
9) Müller, pp. 304f.
10) Segawa, p. 3.
11) Alice Schwarzer, Frauenarbeit-Frauenbefreiung. Praxis, Beispiele und Analysen, Frankfurt, 1973, p. 11.
Published in: Ian Nish (Ed.), Contemporary European Writing on Japan, Scholarly Views from Eastern and Western Europe, Paul Norbury Publications, Kent, 1988, S. 114-119.
Umfasst Papers der 4. International Japanese Studies Conference, abgehalten an der Sorbonne und am College de France, Paris, 23.-26. September 1985.

Uploaded to the Internet in 2004

See also: All Ama-articles by Ruth Linhart. | Photos | Ama ukiyoe and
Frauen der Meere, Text Anke Lübbert, Fotos Felix Seuffert, mare online, Dez 2008, Sonderheft 2008
Dolores P. Martinez: Identity and Ritual in a Japanese Diving Village, Honolulu 2004

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