SHE is the modern mermaid, the living apparition that so taunted sailors and mariners for centuries. But instead of scales and fins, her honey-tanned skin is barely concealed by a saturated white cotton wrap, as sheer as transparent silk in the clear summer water. Her delicate face, disguised with an antique diving mask, is the first to go under, followed by a perfectly round bottom and then her feet, pointing skyward like a Bolshoi ballerina’s en pointe.
I’m watching this scene, not as I should, from the shore off Japan’s Toba City, but on a hazy television screen. A scratchy, 40-year-old documentary is screening in the little museum dedicated to the ama (or amasan, sea women), its walls decorated with nawa (rope), oke (shallow wooden tubs) and tegane (metal tools) for detaching awabi (shellfish).
Toba is one of the few remaining locations around the Japanese coastline where the ama work regularly, fishing in the traditional freediving method for abalone, clams, crustaceans and seaweed.
The idyllic scene has transfixed me, much as the first Western sailors must have been hundreds of years ago when they first caught sight of these athletic, uninhibited women diving in and out of the sea as if they were born to it. Actually they were. The ama begin diving in their mid-teens and continue well into their 40s and 50s, often with their daughters by their side.
In 1954, when the young women were still entering this arduous yet honourable tradition, noted Japanese scholar and ethnographer Professor Kunio Yanagita documented 24 sites around Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu where the ama still practised their traditional skills. But rather than as a field study for academia, it was popular culture and modern mythology where the ama flourished.
Read the rest of the story: Japan’s mermaids show their skills.