What Japan’s millennials of the sea can teach us

By Nancy Snow

Japan’s true heritage — that of a sea people -- has yet to be fully told. To better understand the sustainability soul of Japan, I spent time in November with the ama divers to observe their millennial practice of sustainable fishing.

What first strikes you is the speed at which these women work. They free dive in under 90 seconds, bouncing up from the sea with their "isobue" (sea whistle) and a basket of delectables. What was once a simple loin cloth is, since 1964, a wetsuit with goggles and fins. Essentially this thousand-year practice is untouched by modern gadgets, although their life values could suggest a new path for a greener, ecofriendly, Cool Japan.

Japan’s ama region, half of it in Ise-Shima, is ecotourism nirvana. You can explore the diving practice in the natural habitat of these women who nonchalantly sustain the livelihood and values of their families and communities.

The women are the original social entrepreneurs. When asked about their motivation to become ama divers, they say it beats being tied down to a desk and that every dive is different. Like a Silicon Valley of the sea, they even like to compete against each other. The oldest ama on my visit had the fastest hand for abalone. The other ama pointed out their CEO of abalone. They said that her Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates persona emerges when someone catches more. She nodded approvingly while talking on her cell phone inside the ama cooking hut.

The ama are most creative about how they collect and sustain their bounty. They return underage sea life and avoid overly fished areas. Their winter dives emphasize "namako" (sea cucumber) and oysters, when such sea life is plentiful. The basic rule is this: Overdoing anything depletes life’s resources, so be mindful in every task. Use the right tool, harvest at the right time.

Let’s be candid. Most ama are wiser, older women (acronym WOW). One Ama had hung up her fins at age 80. I met no one who reminded me of “Kissy Suzuki,” the fictionalized ama diver memorialized in the 1967 James Bond film, "You Only Live Twice." The real ama aren’t fazed by tourists who marvel at their feats. We’ve gone a lot more Hollywood over them than they ever have with us. Which is very ama of them. They hold keys to Japan’s sustainability into the future. Foremost is a respect for tradition. Anything that positively extends the way of life of a community for thousands of years is worth sustaining. It includes preservation of nature. The ama way is to utilize the natural environment as not only a source of recreation and enjoyment, but also as a life sustainer and a protected resource.

If we wish to spotlight the ama whose cultural traditions we respect, we must respect the environmental and biodiversity values they uphold. Their friendly competition when diving is more communal onshore. The ama decision making style is reflective of their local leadership status. They reciprocate the respect they hold as heralded members of their communities by seeking the input of all, a lesson for the government and businesses of Japan that are now touting more engagement from citizens and employees.

The ama culture is Japan’s culture, with a strong emphasis on the best the sea basket can offer the palate. If Japan were to share ama cultural values with the world, it might even attract interest and investment from people who want to live more simply and in harmony with nature and with each other. Perhaps there is an opportunity to combine an oasis for replenishment from our modern travails as well as an environmental and global climate research institute. Over the decades the ama told stories of depleted seaweed and sea life, the result in part of rising sea temperatures and ocean pollution.

Our world is full of so much strife, post-election depression and angst. The sustainability we are most skilled at seems to be bloodshed, bombs, and bullets. We are teaching the next generation that the world outside the comfort of our protected selves or homes is to be feared or avoided. It’s everyone for oneself and no one can be trusted.

But we cannot find our better selves without a deeper dive into what has brought us here and what is going to keep us going. That’s what the ama show us. They take a breath, hold it, and return with the gifts of the sea. What makes a good catch isn’t just the right spot (location, location, location), but also positive thinking. As one shared, “Generally speaking, if I'm in a good mood, I can get better catches.” That's the recipe for life and love.

The ama have been doing this practice for millennials so that the millennials will live on. Without trust — in themselves, in each other, the environment, and in their communities, these sea women know they will not survive. A few pages from that ama guide to healthy living could help us landlubbers.

Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi (World Peace) Professor of Public Diplomacy, Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. Reach her at

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