Mikimoto Blog

Ama Pearl Divers – The Original Mermaids

Ama Diver

One of the most fascinating – and enchanting – accounts from Mikimoto’s history is the essential role that female ama divers played in the cultivation of pearls, and the remarkable feats of physical ability these women displayed in doing so.

Thought to have been around for over 2000 years[1], Ama – meaning ‘sea women’[2] – were traditional free divers who made their living diving to depths of up to 25 meters without using any breathing apparatus – instead relying on solely their skills and special breathing techniques.

The role of the Mikimoto ama was to collect the oysters from the seabed so that the pearl-producing nucleus may be inserted. Once this critical process was completed, the ama then carefully returned the oysters to the seabed – in a place where they were protected from external dangers (such as typhoons and red tide).

In order to successfully complete this process, each diver would have to hold her breath for up to two minutes at a time in often freezing cold waters. Upon surfacing, the ama opened their mouths slightly and exhaled slowly, making a whistling sound known as ‘Isobue’.

While traditional ama divers wore only a fundoshi (loincloth) to make it easier to move in the water and a tenugui (bandanna) around their head to cover their hair, Mikimoto ama wore a full white diving costume and used a wooden barrel as a buoy. They were connected to this buoy by a rope and would use it to rest and catch their breath between dives.

Although there are various theories as to why traditional free divers were predominantly women, the most widely-held belief amongst the ama themselves is that women are able to withstand the cold water better due to the extra layers of fat on their body and can therefore stay in the water for longer periods.

Today, due to the advances in pearl cultivation techniques, ama divers are no longer needed. However to celebrate the remarkable achievements of these women and commemorate their important role in the cultivation of pearls, Mikimoto Pearl Island in Mie Prefecture holds diving demonstrations.

From the special Ama Stand, visitors can experience first-hand the thrill of watching ama – dressed in traditional white diving wear – plunge to the depths and return bearing the precious Akoya oysters that produce Mikimoto’s famous pearls.

[1] Rahn, H.; Yokoyama, T. (1965). Physiology of Breath-Hold Diving and the Ama of Japan.
[2] http://www.jpf.org.au/onlinearticles/hitokuchimemo/issue31.html