Amasan – the sea women of Japan

Amasan (ama means sea women in Japanese while san is a salutation of respect) , are free divers for shellfish and pearls in the waters of Pacific Ocean, mostly in Japan’s Mie Prefecture, about 300km south-west of Tokyo.

The amasan’s work is believed to be at least 2,000 years old and is part of Japan’s enduring folklore and legend.

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References to the ama exist in famous texts such as the 8th century Man’yoshu collection of Japanese poetry and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book from the 10th century. The ama are also depicted in ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Edo period (1603-1868) and have influenced Western popular culture thanks to their practice of diving semi-naked up until the introduction of modern wetsuits in the 1970s.

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From the subtly erotic woodblock prints of the 18th-century master Utamaro Kitagawa to the voyeuristic “documentaries” and titillating B-movies of the 1950s and ’60s, the romanticised ama became the pin-up girls of their time. Sassy, tanned, athletic and confident, the ama captured the imagination of film-makers, photographers, novelists and storytellers.

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One, Kissy Suzuki, “married” Agent 007 James Bond in the 1967 film, You Only Live Twice, while novelist Yukio Mishima penned Shiosai (The Sound of Waves), a classic Japanese romantic love story filmed no fewer than five times since it was first published in 1954. But the era of the ama as seductive sea nymphs is long past.

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This article adapted from SilverKris newsletter is written by RODERICK EIME.