[Photograph by Fosco Maraini of Ama diver swimming underwater, from web-site .]
This is because of the greater degree of subcutaneous fat that women have compared with men, but this doesn’t apply to all women. A ‘supermodel’ type would freeze to death in icy water as quickly as any man, which means any women divers have to have a chubby build, and train her body to endure the cold. There are men who are able to withstand cold water as well as any women diver if they have sufficient fat dispersed over their bodies. Yet even these men do have a real problem diving in cold water, because they can suffer from, what is politely called; ‘Frostbite Shorts’. Men have their sexual genitals on the outside of their bodies, and in cold water they can be subjected to frostbite.
[Photograph by Fosco Maraini from his book, Hekura, The Diving Girl’s Island of ama divers climbing down the side of a rocky cliff in bare feet carrying heavy wooden tubs in which to collect shellfish or seaweed when diving.]
In the Faroe islands there are also stories of mermaids who made themselves a nuisance to fishermen by entangling their lines and snapping off their hooks.
[This dramatic painting by Herbert Draper, (1864-1920) is called, “The Sea-Maiden”. Although it is classed as a mermaid picture, she is clearly just an ordinary woman. The artist makes no attempt to put a fish’s tail on her which must raise the question for people who do not know what mermaids really are; why is a normal woman swimming in the sea? Incidents like this may have happened in the past; where women divers have been caught up in fishermen’s nets. (The artist may have been painting a story than was told to him.) This wouldn’t be a problem if the sea-people and fishermen were on good terms with each other. But we have mermaid stories from the past where fishermen have attacked and even killed mermaids and this might be the case as shown in this painting. We can see clearly the look of fear on the woman’s face and the shock, anger and probably lust of the fishermen, highlighting the conflict between the sea-people and ‘ordinary’ people.]
We have similar stories in Germany. There are many mermaids in German mythology; they are mostly fresh-water mermaids living in wetlands before farmers built levees around rivers and the swamps were drained. They were called Meerfrau, Melusine, (double tailed mermaid), Nix, (male) or Nixe (female). The Nix and Nixe had a reputation of luring people to water and drowning them and demanding human sacrifice. For outsiders wetlands can be dangerous places, people can be caught in quicksand or bogs or simply drown falling into lakes if they are not very good swimmers. It seems the mermaid people got the blame for these deaths because with the clear hostilely against the mermaid people, there were many negative stories about them. It was claimed they were like sirens, and their beautiful singing would lure people to their death on the Rhine.
Fortunately not all people would go along with the Church’s propaganda against women divers. So in some places the locals would encourage the stories of mermaids being mythical creatures, to protect them. The Church might have gone along with this, preferring stories of mythical mermaids rather than the fact of diving women, who could do a job better than men. So everyone involved, had a reason to keep it secret. This then is why mermaid stories are really a secret chapter of women’s history. The mermaid people who lived on the coast or inland in wetlands lived a very different lifestyle to ‘ordinary people’. The biggest differences seem to be that the landlubbers lived in patriarchal societies while the mermaid communities lived in matriarchal communities.
Ownership is passed down the female line in Mosuo and the women are free to change husbands whenever they feel like it, or have sex with any man she chooses. Unfortunately rumours of the Mosuo’s people’s free and easy sexual customs have attracted brothels and sexual tourists to the area. With prostitutes being imported from outside and claiming to be Mosuo women, to satisfy the fantasies of their clients. The same is also true in Japan where strip-club owners have made claims that their strippers are ama divers. (Probably another reason why ama divers now wear unglamorous and impracticable cotton clothing.)
So it could be that Herbert James Draper being a well-educated man may have known all this and expressed it by calling the beautiful naked women in his picture a Kelpie, or water Devil. This would also be a subtle attack on the Christian Church for the way they have blackened the name of mermaids or the sea-people by referring to them as devils. Though it could also be that he was mindlessly expressing Christian propaganda, that naked beautiful women are devils, which justified the genocide of the witches and the mermaid people.
Showing the reality of ama divers in the modern world, walking along a tarmac highway to the beach with their bodies completely covered up and with head coverings that look like an Islamic Hijab.]
–>Photograph by Iwase Yoshiyuki from website,
called “Havesting Seaweed 1956”
The same web-site also writes about the daily life of a ama diver in the following paragraph. –
called “Hauling up a fishing boat 1950”
There are 45 ama photographs on the site showing amas in their daily life at work, between 1935-1956, while others are posed glamour photographs. Unfortunately there are no underwater photographs.
Picture from film “Violated Paradise” stills are available from website.-
Another picture from film “Violated Paradise”, this film is available at.
However, as will be discussed, divers have also long been an object of Japanese academic research, and in this context they seem to exist in a mythical realm of their own: they have been variously described by physiologists as physically and therefore potentially racially different; by folklorists and anthropologists as the remnants of an ancient Japanese matriarchy; or, linked to the notion of a different race, as descendants of Koreans.
Whatever their origins, at one time it seems that all the people on the islands we now call Japan did dive; the Chinese dynastic histories during the Wei Dynasty (A.D. 220-265) noted of the place they called Queen country: The people are fond of fishing; regardless of the depth of the water, they dive to capture fish” (Tsunoda 1951: 10). As time went on, and rice cultivation was introduced from China, diving (and fishing) became specialized skills, with the people who practised them becoming more marginalized from the mainstream culture. While fishing remained an important source of food, the fact that the social structure, in imitation of China, was based on settled agricultural communities meant that divers and fishermen were rarely mentioned in historic documents (Samsom 1931: 45)
Divers do appear in other sorts of documents from the eighth through the thirteenth centuries (Christian era), that is, as the subjects of evocative poems written by courtiers. In these poems, the female divers appear to hold many associations, for the ancient noblemen and women: they represent melancholy, solitude, nature and freedom. Their nakedness is not shocking (farming women worked bare-breast in the summer), but romantic and picturesque.
There is some controversy whether both the ama and haenyo dived completely nude in the past. It is claimed that the thongs or bathers that amas used up until the 1960s was only introduced at the start of the 20th century. There is evidence that public nudity was perfectly acceptable to both men and women in ama villages. The above photograph, by Iwase Yoshiyuki shows men in a ama village working completely nude. Which suggests that perhaps the thongs or bathers that the amas are photographed in, are worn at the request of the photographer, as he would know it would be hard to sell any photographs of totally nude amas. In modern times amas wear clothes or a wet-suit because they are now part of the tourist industry.
The hard physical labour required by diving had other interesting repercussions. In the 1930s physiologists discovered that the women in ama communities tended to be taller and heavier than the norm for Japanese women. They also could tolerate long hours in very cold water, something non-divers could not do. Thus, for some researchers this raised a question about their origins and whether they might not be Japanese at all. Physiological studies of the ama tended then to group Koreans and Japanese divers together, using the same term for both, since physically they were alike. However in the 1960s, the loss of diver’s ability to withstand low water temperatures because they had taken to wearing wetsuits meant that for some physiologist the ama were no longer interesting (Hong 1983, private communication). The differences between divers and the main population are now seen to be ones of diet and of adaptation which anyone could develop if they begin diving young enough, rather than actual racial differences due to different gene pool.
This Festival called the Kanamara Matsuri (Festival of the Steel Phallus) may look very shocking to people outside Japan. But before the rise of religions and doctrines like Christianity, Islam and Confucianism they were commonplace throughout the world. In ancient Greece and Rome before Christianity they had the Dionysus and Bacchus Festivals that celebrated sexuality. Sex and religion were closely linked in other religions like in the Tantra, a Hindu sect and Taoism, an
ancient Chinese religion.
In ancient Goddess religions everything to do with childbirth was seen as very holy, including sex. These Goddess religions made sacred, sexual intercourse; menstruation, childbirth and breast-feeding. Then when completely male dominated religions took over like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all these things were made sinful, unclean or taboo. These attitudes exist even today, where mothers are made to feel ashamed of themselves for breast-feeding in public. Back in the 1950s and 60s male doctors in western countries all but banned breast-feeding, claiming that cow’s milk was better for the child! It was only later scientific research showed the
obvious fact that that human milk was best for human babies. The free and easy attitude that the Shinto religion had about sexuality and nudity, probably allowed the women divers to continue in Japan, where it was banned throughout the rest of the world, except in the isolated Korean Islands of Mara, Udo and Cheju, (Jeju).
More pictures on this festival in this blog can be seen in Miscellaneous