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Tradition and New Style of Japanese Sea Maiden

  On a sunny afternoon in late May, Masako Kimura, a sea woman, jumped into the water. At first, her orange flippers could be seen in the seaweed, but in a short while, she disappeared completely, and without a colorful buoy on the surface that ebbed and flowed with the waves, it would have been hard to detect anyone underwater. It felt like a long, long time before she popped her head up next to the buoy, but it hadn’t really been a minute.
  Masako Kimura put the trophy into the bag tied to the buoy, then changed her air and dived underwater again, looking for abalone, octopus, salamander snails and other seafood. She thus spent two and a half hours in the seawater. She then swam ashore, walked up the beach and placed the wicker basket containing her harvest of large abalone and some smaller sized shellfish on the ground.
  ”The water was a little murky today, so I had a hard time seeing underwater, and the harvest was pretty average.” She pointed her finger to the wicker basket on the side and said, “However, this is the most suitable time of the year for diving and fishing, and the water is warmer, so the abalone can be sold at a price.”

Masako Kimura, a sea woman fishing in the sea
| 3000 years of diving history |

  The earliest sea maids date back 3,000 years, living in isolated and remote areas with few job opportunities and working as sea maids to support their families. in the 19th century, sea maids also earned money by searching for natural mother-of-pearl underwater. Half a century ago, there were more than 17,000 sea maids in Japan, but today there are only about 2,000 brave women in Japan who are still engaged in this ancient profession, and Masako Kimura is one of them. Even now, they never dive fishing with breathing apparatus, because in the view of the sea maids, oxygen bottles that allow people to stay underwater longer can lead to the problem of overfishing.
  In the past, the diving equipment of sea maids was a white cotton jacket with a hook-shaped tool called “kaginomi”, but today’s sea maids use similar items to their ancestors, with slight improvements, and the diving mask and black diving suit are the few concessions they have made in the face of modernity. How did this profession become the preserve of women? This mainly stems from the traditional Japanese concept that women can hold their breath longer than men underwater, and that women have more subcutaneous fat and are more resistant to freezing than men. In addition, even if there are men fishing in the sea, it is often women who are in the spotlight. You can look through old black-and-white photos and postcards and see that they are all women fishermen, and many of them are topless.
  Documents and ancient tools unearthed in central Japan show that the history of sea maidens goes back 3000 years. Although the tradition of sea maidens has continued all the way to the present, they are worried about their successors. The number of sea maids is decreasing every year, mainly because few young women are willing to inherit the work of the previous generation of sea maids, and most of them want to find safe and well-paying jobs in the city.

1. sea maids share the joy of the harvest on board. 2. Masako Kimura prepares to go to the seafood market to sell the day’s harvest. 3. 85-year-old Reiko Nomura shares with customers an interesting bit of her 66-year career as a sea maid.

  ”I started this business when I retired 20 years ago, and I’m 80 years old this year.” Masako Kimura said as she sat inside the hut to keep warm. The shore-side hut was built from rotting driftwood. Masako Kimura, who has been in the sea for several hours, and other sea women are now gathered around the fire to keep warm.
  ”Since ancient times, the women of Ijika village have earned their living as sea maids.” Masako Kimura shrugged as she said, “It’s so far from the town that in the past, transportation was inconvenient, and living here is no different from living on an isolated island.” Masako Kimura rushed to the market to sell her “trophies”, she hung up her mask and black diving suit and then lifted the basket and walked in the direction of the valley, where her small car was parked.

4. The sea maids not only grill the seafood of the day for customers at the restaurant, but also sell sea maid-themed peripherals. 5. Young women are starting to join the sea maid family. Aiko Ono (left) says, “As a part of the sea maid family, part of my responsibility is to make the sea maid profession cool.”
| Open your mind to survive

  Today, the sea maid profession is extinct in many places, and today only 18 prefectures in Japan have sea maids left, half of whom go diving in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of the Shima Peninsula during the fish season.
  Sakichi Okuda, president of the Fisheries Association, said, “In the past, girls in these places would become sea maids as soon as they graduated from junior high school.” He said this used to be the rite of passage for women in these areas. A good example is the family of Michiko Hashimoto, who has a sister four years younger, both of whom work as sea maids. They grew up learning diving and fishing skills with their mother and grandmother. But the family tradition of sea maids is now in its last generation, and their children have moved to the city in search of more stable work.
  ”We can’t rely on our heritage anymore.” Sakuichi Okuda says, “In order to preserve the culture of the sea maids, the first problem we have to solve is how to raise the income of the sea maids.”
  The business of sea maids is not only hard, but also dangerous. “I would like to have young people to take over my job, but I know very well that it’s not a good line of work, and frankly, I wouldn’t even recommend my children to do it.” Michiko Hashimoto said.
  Outside the fish season, sea maids usually work in local hotels and stores, but now a new work pattern has emerged. They will open their beach huts as attractions for tourists and tell them about their fishing experiences. “I started this business when I was 14 and worked until I was 80, and I’m 85 now.” Reiko Nomura, dressed in traditional white, told customers at the Sea Maid Hut restaurant. “My mother, my grandmother and my maternal great-grandmother were all sea maids. Women in this area used to make a living as sea maids all the time.” It’s almost like a rite of passage for our women,” she said. In the past, if you didn’t become a sea maid, you couldn’t even get married.” In her 66 years as a sea maid, Reiko Nomura freely admits that she has encountered several life-threatening situations, with the rope around her waist getting caught in rocks and seaweed on the sea floor on several occasions. Thanks to her composure, she has been able to turn the danger into success and surface safely each time.

  Miyuki Okano, 70, like many senior sea maids, is worried about the fact that there are too few young sea maids. “We all have daughters, but they don’t want to take over after years of watching us come home from work with cold bodies.” She sighed and said, “Besides, in this day and age, it’s hard to make a living from diving and fishing alone. We usually have another job on the side.”

Sea maids ready to go ashore after fishing

  Even a short period of free diving can be dangerous. Therefore, the sea maids paint traditional designs on their masks, which they believe will keep them safe ashore. Sea maidens also have a tradition of worshipping the goddess of the rock of mercy for safety, and they offer sake and rice cakes each time they do so.
| Can the sea maidens have a young future? | The Sea Maids

  It is true that developing tourism in the hometown of the sea maidens can solve some of the financial problems. But if we want to keep the sea maidens alive, we need to consider how to inject new blood into the industry in addition to money. As he said, “In order to preserve and continue the traditions and lifestyle of the sea maids, we must not limit ourselves to the old concept of mother-to-child transmission in the sea maid industry, but open our minds and welcome people from outside to work in this industry. We need to open our minds and welcome people from outside to join the industry. If we can accomplish this change in thinking, the future of the sea maiden will not be so bleak.” But Shuzo Kogure also said that some senior sea maids are not very welcoming to new members, which may also be related to the reality that seafood such as shellfish is becoming increasingly difficult to find.
  Nevertheless, there are people of the younger generation who have the courage to face the sea, and they hope to continue the tradition of sea maidens through their practical actions. Aiko Ono, 38 years old, is a typical representative. Before she started her “Sea Maid journey” in October 2016, she was a full-time videographer working in Tokyo. When the government issued an official advertisement for apprentices to work as sea maids in rural areas, she signed up. “I have loved the sea since I was a child. I like to play a lot of sea sports, like surfing, sea kayaking and scuba diving.” She said.
  ”When I was living in Tokyo, I thought all the time that I would like to live by the sea in the future.” Later, says Aiko Ono, “I felt more and more that I was born to be a woman of the sea.” Since moving to the Shima Peninsula, she feels that her life has become much simpler and she has never been happier. She also admits that she did have to overcome some difficulties, such as the fact that the village didn’t have many people her own age.
  ”When I first came here, I felt like an outsider, but now, I’m fully integrated into the Sea Maid family.” Aiko Ono says with a smile, “As part of the Sea Maid family, part of my responsibility is to make the profession of Sea Maid cool, and I want to prove to young women that it’s a perfect way to live. In short, I’ll do everything I can to keep Sea Girl alive.”

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