What is the secret of the physical strength of the ama female divers with their age-old tradition in Japan?
Another of the most famous attributes of Shima City, where aosa is cultivated, is the region’s female divers, known as ama. These women have traditionally made their living from diving deep into the sea to obtain shellfish and seaweed. This is an occupation that has traditionally been associated with women in both Japan and Korea.
Ama divers have become very popular in Japan in recent years due to the appearance of an ama as the star of a TV drama series. The occupation of ama is not merely a traditional one but has now become to which many women aspire.
There are 978 women in the whole of Mie Prefecture who are active as ama divers.
This represents around 17 percent of the total number of ama throughout the country. The women are from a wide age range, extending from their twenties to their seventies.
The work of the ama involves considerable expenditure of physical strength. Even during winter they dive into the cold sea water for an hour a day, holding their breath and diving down to a depth of around 10 meters. In the expectation that they too might be regular consumers of aosa, we made our way to an area known as Koshika situated at the farthermost tip of Shima City.
We visited an ama’s work shelter, where a group of ama divers were warming their cold bodies around a sunken hearth. We were greeted by three currently active ama, Kimiyo Hayashi (60), Mitsuko Nishioka (68) and Tomomi Nakanishi (44).
Kimiyo Hayashi, a veteran ama who has been diving for some 46 years, belongs to a family in which this has been a hereditary occupation. After working in tourism as an ama involved in the cultivation of pearls in the United States and at Shirahama in Wakayama Prefecture, she returned to Shima.
The sea produce that can be obtained in Shima includes abalone, turban shells, haliotis, octopus and sea urchin. The ama dive into the sea almost every day throughout the year except when inclement weather conditions make it impossible for them to do so.
Kimiyo has become a legendary figure among the ama divers of Koshika due to her having once gathered up as many as a thousand turban shells in the course of a single day. She is renowned especially for taking so little time off work: she spends a minimum amount of time on the sea surface and dives over and over again in a short space of time.
Her physical strength is astounding but she is the very picture of health. “Actually I’m a fussy eater and there’s a lot that I can’t eat. But I’ve never ever had any significant illness and I’ve never had to go regularly to the doctor for any reason,” she says with a smile on her face.
Then there’s Mitsuko Nishioka, whose trim body belies the fact that she is engaged in the hard work entailed in the occupation of an ama diver. It was when she turned 51 and had her children off her hands for the first time that she decided to take on the challenge offered by a new world of which she had had no previous experience and realize her long-held ambition of becoming an ama diver.
She learned the tricks of the trade by watching her peers at work and bucked up the courage to take the plunge, since when 18 years have now passed.
She says that there was a time when she felt face to face with death in the sea. “I became too ambitious. My fingers became numb with cold in the sea and I struggled for all I was worth to grasp the abalone that were within my reach but that I hadn’t been able to get hold of, and it was only then that I realized that I was out of breath. I really thought I was done for as I rose to the surface.”
Ama divers pursue an occupation in which death is a constant threat. But Mitsuko Nishioka says: “I’m not afraid of the sea. It’s the source of my health.”
She originally started diving as an ama for health reasons. Her health deteriorated due to stress when she was in her late thirties. She suddenly broke out in a cold sweat and began shaking while at home and had to be rushed to hospital in an ambulance.
But she found her health suddenly improved once she had begun to fulfill her dream of becoming an ama diver. “Since I started diving I haven’t experienced any kind of illness at all,” she chuckles.
After working as an ama diver for tourists at Shirahama, the still young Tomomi Nakanishi returned to where she was born in Koshika. Although still on the young side, she is a veteran with almost thirty years of experience as an ama.
She is modest about her abilities and says that she still needs to polish her skills. She goes on to say that the joy to be experienced as an ama increases the harder one works at the job.
In order to keep up their strength, these ama divers sometimes consume as many as four meals a day. As well as eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, they sometimes have a further evening meal known as yuzake in the ama shelter, consisting of a homemade bento or mochi rice cakes and potatoes baked over the sunken hearth.
And one of the essential ingredients on the dinner table of these ama divers is of course aosa.
“I’ve been eating it every day since I was a child.”
“It’s the kind of thing that people give you to eat around here.”
“I eat it every day when it’s in season.”
The yuzake meal on this particularly day consisted of aosa tempura and miso soup. The fragrance of the sea and the mild taste pervades the palate. It’s precisely the aosa that these women have been eating on a daily basis since they were children that has provided them with this reservoir of good health.
The three women are as one when they say that “when we’re in the sea, there’s nothing else that we could possibly wish for” and “the occupation of ama is second to none.”
“We intend to continue diving for as long as we’re able to do so.”
Supported by the proliferation of goodness in the sea, the ama of Shima continue to dive today too.
海女が囲炉裏を囲んで、冷えた身体を休ませる場所、「海女小屋」。 ここで迎えてくれたのが、３人の現役海女さん。 林喜美代さん（６０） 西岡光子さん（６８） 中西智美さん（４４）です。
海女歴４６年というベテランの林さんは、代々続く海女の家系。 アメリカ、和歌山県白浜での真珠養殖の観光海女を経て、 志摩に戻ってきました。
一日で1000個ものサザエを収穫したことがあるという、越賀の海女の中でも生ける伝説のような林さん。 彼女の凄さは「頭（かしら）が早い」こと。 これは、海面で休んでいる時間が短く、短時間の間に何回も潜れることを言います。
その理由は海女業を始める前に経験した、身体の不調。 30代後半の頃、ストレスが原因で体調を壊した西岡さん。 自宅で突然、汗と震えで倒れ、救急車で病院に担ぎ込まれたこともありました。