I’ve looked up what the encyclopedia has on ama divers. I remember hearing about them but I didn’t know they dived naked. Also from what I recall they are now “extinct”. The article has old photos of them diving in little loincloths, topless but not naked. More recent photos have them in full-coverage cotton suits. In my view these are concessions to Western ideas of modesty -- to the extent of actually doing these ladies harm. Some years ago I did an article on the Chukchi people in Siberia. I learned how wearing wet clothes in cold conditions is the surest way to hypothermia. The Chukchi disrobe entirely when they go inside, those big tents called yurts. The reason is to avoid sweating into their clothes. Going outside in wet clothes in minus 40 degree weather would be suicide.
So it makes sense for ama to dive naked. Apparently they brought in a rich harvest of oysters, abalone, whelk, and other shellfish, expensive delicacies. They were a staple of the local economy. The ama were all women because women are better able to stand the cold water off coastal Japan, which can go down to 9 degrees Celsius. This led me to an article on “human climatic adaptations”. Studies done in the 1950’s showed that the ama’s constant exposure to the cold water resulted in a thicker layer of subcutaneous fat. Also they developed breathing techniques that allowed them to stay underwater longer and avoid decompression sickness. This was necessary because the best delicacies are not found until one goes down at least thirty feet.
Their only equipment, besides the loincloth, was a diving mask, a culling knife, a little net, and a rope around their waists which they tugged on when they were ready to be brought up. (With a load of shellfish they wouldn’t be able to float up to the surface by themselves.) You might think they would use flippers but their feet were bare. I suppose flippers would be unwieldy on the boat, or climbing over the rocks on shore.
Remarkably, they dove even in winter, though less (fifteen dives a day, spaced out, instead of about a hundred). Wisely, they rotated the location of their dives, to allow for annual re-growth.
The article on climatic adaptation mentioned the tribe of Yaghan in Tierra del Fuego, now exterminated by disease and conquest, who were observed in the 1800’s living naked in sub-antarctic conditions, swimming in freezing water, babies walking naked in the snow. But that adaptation was developed over the space of many generations, like that of the mountain people of Bolivia, who had developed larger lungs to breathe in the thin high altitude air.
I couldn’t find anything more in the library except one nauseating picture book called “Japan’s Naked Mermaids”. It was ostensibly about the ama but consisted of young, svelte women lounging in the warm sun on rocks in bikini bottoms, holding masks like they were props. One was naked on a rock, looking like she was having an orgasm as a wave broke over her crotch. I wondered why the Professor would own something so exploitative, until I read the dedication on the overleaf: “To Hikaru: An epitaph. I must tell you I didn’t buy this -- I found on the curb. Signed, Fumiko.” Maybe the ama were driven out of existence by leering Westerners.
At any rate, those indolent young wakai in that book bear no resemblance to the brave, hardy ama I just saw in action. She seems to be living a hard life.