Japanese culture has long fascinated travellers, but few things have garnered as much interest over the years as the female free divers known as Ama-san.
After developing a passion in photography at a relatively late age, Chikako Furuya has documented the ama communities of Japan’s archipelago for over a decade.
In an industry dominated by men, it is perhaps not a coincidence that Furuya chose to capture one of only a handful of roles, outside of family, that has traditionally been reserved for women.
‘They sometimes joke about what it would be like without husbands’
‘I began my project with the ama at a time when I was doing a lot of underwater photography,’ she explains.
‘I was doing a project on fishermen in Okinawa, where there are no ama divers. But knowing that Japan has the largest population of ama, and also being a woman, I wanted to know more about this presence of female divers.’
The tradition of ama
Furuya’s photographs have been part of a growing understanding of the ama community within Japan, with publications and images that present a more faithful depiction of a community that has largely been misappropriated in popular culture.
Predominantly located in Mie prefecture, the ama community today represents a tradition that goes back more than 2,000 years.
Thought to have originated from the seafaring gypsies who traveled the southern seas and coastal areas of Japan and South Korea, the role has traditionally been left to women because it is thought that the female body is better able to cope with cold water temperatures and withstand the underwater environments where abalone, oysters and other seabed-dwelling creatures are harvested.
Furuya’s photographs portray not only a community of women but also a sense of belonging.
‘When we’re diving I can’t really ask them to pose a certain way,’ she says. ‘They see me diving and even if at first they would say no to being photographed, after being part of their work and diving alongside them, our relationship changes and [my] ability to photograph changes as well.’
The ama typically dive in groups and are well aware of the potential dangers of the ocean.
‘If there’s an accident and you need help, there is always someone there that could help,’ Furuya says.
‘There’s also this beauty in their community. They sometimes joke about what it would be like without husbands and such, and it’s a warm atmosphere of women. And having a job that is exclusive to women is, of course, empowering.’
‘They want their children to find better jobs and get an education rather than become an ama’
While most ama are following in their ancestors’ footsteps, that’s not to say the tradition hasn’t changed along with society over time.
‘I think in Japan as a whole women have had to do roles that were traditionally set aside for them, such as farming or being an ama.
‘But things have changed and women now have more choices and more opportunities to do different jobs,’ Furuya says.
‘Also, the difficulties of being an ama mean that some women don’t want their daughters to do the job. They want their children to find better jobs and get an education rather than become an ama.’
As well as depicting the relationship the ama have with the ocean, Furuya reveals her subjects’ day-to-day lives through her photographs.
‘The work of an ama is different from place to place, and they also have their own way of life.
‘If they are mothers, they might have to prepare their children’s lunch and make sure they go to school.
‘After that, if there’s time, they might work on the farm before going to the ocean to dive,’ she says.
‘Being an ama doesn’t mean spending the whole day in the ocean. It’s about finding a balance between their life in the ocean and their life outside of it.’
The force of nature
For Furuya, who is originally from Tokyo, photographing the ama has heightened her awareness of our relationship with the environment.
‘Living in such a large city, what you eat or consume is not something you necessarily relate to as a living thing,’ she says.
‘Being an ama, you dive in the ocean and you get your fish and you cook what you catch.
‘If life in the ocean disappears, then the amas’ reason to dive disappears along with it’
‘You rely on your environment and what’s around you—it’s a simple life, it’s honest, and is one that is close to nature.’
This connection with nature is at the very core of Furuya’s work.
Having experienced the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and borne witness to changes in the ocean and environment, she offers a subtle reminder of both the beauty and fragility of our environment.
‘After the earthquake and tsunami, I became more and more aware of the strength of nature as well as the dangers of it.
‘I also understood how important it is to have these understandings,’ she says.
‘If life in the ocean disappears, then the amas’ reason to dive disappears along with it.
‘By taking these images I’m hoping to bring these realities closer to those who are largely unaware of these communities and their way of life.
‘I want to be able to show the many different realities that are experienced in the world. It’s what makes life so interesting.’
Photos: Chikako Furuya