This post contains nudity in a historical, incidental context.
I spent much of my childhood in the water. Growing up on the coast, we were at the beach every weekend, even in winter. The ocean became a symbol of guidance, drawing me back to the coast anytime I moved inland. Serene coastlines, rocky cliffs, and countless shallow-water treasures are memories I reference daily.
Women of the Sea
Ama, which means Woman of the Sea, are the Japanese mermaids who dive for shells and seaweeds. They dive without air tanks or any equipment. This custom has been female dominated since the 3rd century in Japan, a time when the country was ruled by a queen.
In Korea and Japan, sea diving helped to empower women by allowing them to make a living and support their families. Haenyeo, Korean sea women, are considered one of the most valued treasures of Jeju island, where diving created a primarily matriarchal society.
Traditionally, when diving, the women immersed themselves into beautiful clear seas wearing only a loincloth, searching for pearl oysters in thick underwater forests of arame seaweed. Mikimoto, famous for his cultured pearls, developed white suits for his divers after noticing the surprise of foreign visitors at Pearl Island.
In ancient Japan, women were considered to have a thicker layer of fat under their skin than men, and could more easily endure the cold. Men are also thought to have higher mortality rates in the history of sea diving.
“When a man comes to the ocean he exploits it and strips it. When a woman puts her hand in the ocean that balance is restored.” (Deep, by James Nestor)
The Ama believed that the ocean will always provide for humans if they gather from it in their natural forms, only taking what can be carried. To minimize our impact on ocean ecosystems, our pearls come from antique necklaces.
In honor of these luminescent sea gems, enjoy this piece on the Japanese Ama, the women of the sea. The clip illustrates what appear to be Mikimoto girls tending the pearl beds, followed by seaweed divers coming to shore.
Memories of the Water
Some favorite memories: Sunday drives up the coast, hidden rivers and streams, shimmering surfaces, water up to my waist and then over my head; always at the beach, building sandcastles; collecting seashells and ocean wildlife ~ then returning them to their source.