Ama divers [part 3]

The Ama Part 3

Japan's Professional freedivers

Names and etymology

In Japan, the term ama is the best-known term to designate what are now primarily female professional freedivers.
The word most like derives from a common root with the Japanese word for sea, umi a commonly encountered explanation is that it derives from a contraction of ama-bito, written in sinograms as [海人], with the meaning “sea person”.

In more ancient times, the word covered people, male and female, involved not just in breath-hold collecting activities but generally in fishing and associated sea-based economic activities – which mirrors a similar word use in some Okinawan languages, uminchu, written with the same sinograms [海人], “sea person”), which does to this day covers people involved sea and fishing related activities.

Nowadays, the word ama is most commonly written with a sinogram combination reading “sea woman” [海女] , but another character, created in Japan, 塰, is sometimes also used.
(since their first introduction in the 5th century, sinogram use has always been very flexible in Japan, especially when used to write indigenous Japonic words).

Today, and in the recent past, the vast majority of ama divers are/were indeed women, but this was not always the case.
The word ama itself can also be written in a masculine form, with another sinogram combination, [海士], which can be read “sea man” or “sea specialist worker”.

Local variations also such as kaito in the Izu Peninsula area (Shizuoka Prefecture) for instance, and there are probably others to be found in the local dialects and languages of the archipelago, since ama diving cultures existed from northern Honshū to the southern Ryū-Kyū islands.

Image source: Abalone divers, Utamaro


The history of ama divers is clearly very ancient, speculated to be at least 2000 years old, but probably much older, given the importance of shell mounds ([貝塚] kaizuka ) from the middle-Jōmon period onwards, including some shells that were no doubt collected on breath-hold.

Freediving activities are also mentioned in the Gishi Wajin Den (魏志倭人伝), a Chinese description of the Japanese islands and their inhabitants, which dates back 285 CE.

Ama freedivers are first mentioned in literature in the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry, the Man’yōshū (759 CE) and in works of Japan’s Heian period.

Up to the mid-20th century, female ama divers worked in various levels of undress, which also led to female divers being a recurrent theme in woodblock prints, including many suggestive, erotically-charged representation.

Here are some of the more figurative works:

Image source: Utamaro

Image source:

Image source:

Image source: Utamaro

Image source:

This tradition seems to have found something of an extension with mid-20th century photography.
A number of photos, mostly taken in the early 1960s,   documenting ama diving activities.
These famous are pictures are mostly attributed to photographers Fosco Maraini, (Ishikawa Prefecture’s Hegura-jima, on the sea of Japan),  Yoshiyuki  Iwase (the Chiba Prefecture’s Iwawada coast ) and Yoshinobu Nakamura (all around Japan)

The contrast with modern, wetsuit-wearing amas is quite striking.
Looking a little more closely at some of these pictures, where most of the young women supposedly working half-naked have barely suntanned skin, whitened teeth and sometimes make-up, and given the time-frame (1960s…), there are reasons to believe that some might actually be professional models who came for a photoshoot in a traditional setting…

Abalone Divers in Ise Province, Utagawa Hiroshige III, 1877
Image source:

Scroll to Top