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Pearl Diving ‘Girls’ in Japan

One of the commonest questions we hear relates to the so-called ‘pearl diving girls’ of Japan.

Let’s clear up a few mysteries and misconceptions!

In Japan, for over a thousand years, natural pearls were sought after and brought to the surface by the ‘Ama’ – a word that very roughly translates to “woman of the sea”.

The term used in English is often “girls” but that is fundamentally wrong.  The vast majority of the Ama were mature women andmany continued diving into their 80s and even 90s.

Surprisingly, their primary target wasn’t really pearls for pearl jewellery as such but abalone and seaweed. If they came across a mollusc bearing a pearl, that was an added bonus.

They would regularly free-dive to depths of around 10 metres or more, holding their breath for up to or even in excess of 2 minutes. When they surfaced, to avoid medical problems, they gently whistled out the air in their lungs slowly as they rose.

In many cases, they’d be diving almost entirely naked and into sometimes near freezing water temperatures. The one explanation often cited for the fact that this was an almost exclusively female profession, is that the Japanese believed that women’s bodies have a higher fat content which is differently distributed to that of  males. This was presumed to make them more resistant to the cold water than men.

Of course, some cynics say that men found this a convenient explanation, as they didn’t want to do the work!

Other people point out that the women in these communities had a degree of financial independence and career control that was unusual in Japan. That may have attracted many women into this area of work.

Today, the old traditions have now largely disappeared. Although there are still women working in this industry, they typically use modern equipment and no longer dive naked. Some traditional displays are held which demonstrate the old techniques but these are now largely for tourists only.

It’s a lovely tradition and one that should be preserved.

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