Japanese Women of the Sea
Nina Poppe is a German photographer and curator who published Ama, one of the best photo books of 2011. The images tell the story of contemporary Japanese female pearl divers, aka ama. These women make their living by diving for abalone, a slimy sea snail that produces pearls. The Japanese tradition suggests that this practice may be two millennia old. Even today, an ama dives according to the old ways: without equipment, relying only on lung power. The Japanese believe that the majority of ama are women because of how their bodies differ from men: The fat on a female body is distributed differently than that on men, which ensures that they can stay warmer in colder water. Ama is an extinguishing profession; most of these women are around 60, some are over 80. Nina decided to photograph these women before it was too late, before no ama was diving into the blue anymore and the only one we would have remembered was Kissy Suzukiin James Bond’s You Only Live Twice. So I decided to call Nina and talk about this.
VICE: How long did this book take to shoot and for what lengths of time were you staying with theama?
Nina Poppe: In 2010 I went to Japan twice, first in May and then I went back in August and September. On my second travel I stayed on the Island of Ise-Shima with the ama for two weeks.
Was it a struggle getting them to accept you into their community? How did you cope with the language barrier?
The language was indeed a big problem. I donʻt speak any Japanese. I always had a little book with me, where I had some basic sentences written down. Who I am, what Iʻm doing, what I want from them… It felt really strange. It was a total loss of communication, as nobody could speak any English on that island. It was a feeling like someone cut my tongue. I was a total stranger with my blond hair and blue eyes. I could feel it everywhere, all the time, which was exhausting. Everybody stared at me, but in a friendly and curious way. Still, after two weeks I ran away from the island, as I had such a need for communication. The good thing about it is that all your senses are very concentrated when you canʻt communicate. Being a woman helped a lot, I think. The ama were very open and friendly with me. I think they didn’t understand what I was doing there, but they took me on their boat and let me into their huts. It felt that the ama are very open toward other women, and they were maternal with me. I could have been their daughter.
At what age do these women start diving? How deep do they go, and for how long at a time?
Most of them start early, as a teenager. They dive up to 30 meters deep without equipment. They dive two times a day for exactly an hour and a half at fixed times. They are underwater for about 2 minutes, and do this up to 60 times in one diving session. The frequency makes it so hard.