There is something rare and quite wonderful about people adhering to a tradition more than a thousand years old. At a time when the race for profit has led to severe overfishing worldwide, the discovery that there is a remote community of fisherwomen in Toba, Japan, fiercely committed to protecting the ocean and its wildlife, is at once surprising and deeply inspiring. These women are known as ama.

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Shigeyo Nakayama is 69 years old, but that hasn't stopped her from freediving to the ocean's depths up to 90 times each day, 70 days a year, for the past 50 years . "What I do is so rewarding," she says, just hours after her last dive. "I bring my catch to the market and earn a respectable living, as well as the respect and admiration of others in the community."

The term ama in its very earliest form means "sea folk", but over the years the characters have changed and the modern usage is gender-specific, best translated as "sea woman".

The community is tight-knit, and one of its most admirable qualities is its steadfast commitment to observing its own, self-imposed restrictions.

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The rules vary between regions in Japan, but in general, ama are limited to fishing on only 60 to 70 days a year, for 60 to 90 minutes on each of those days. These laws were created in part to protect the ama from adverse weather and tidal conditions, but primarily to ensure the sustainability of its ocean wildlife.

"The Shima Peninsula [where Toba is located] has a community of 800 active ama, about half the total of the entire ama population in Japan. This is because the marine ecosystem is rich and healthy, ideal for sustaining abalone, turban snails, seaweed and sea urchins. This would not be possible if the community didn't self-regulate and abide by their own laws," says Yoshikata Ishihara, director of the Sea-Folk Museum in Toba.

"They are prohibited from fishing during the spawning season. They also carry measuring tools with them as they fish, to ensure that the abalone are at least 10.6cm, which means the shellfish is at least five years old."

Ishihara says that they very rarely see cases of rule-breaking. "It is simply against the culture and the spirit of the community," he explains. "There is an underlying lifestyle of supporting each other amongst the ama."

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The avoidance of overfishing is also a key reason why ama freedive - holding their breath rather than using scuba gear - in a tradition that has persisted since the 7th century.

There is a healthy debate concerning what is the earliest mention of ama in historical records, but abalone tools have been discovered on Japanese shores which date back to as early as 300BC, and the most widely accepted, specific mention of "female divers" can be found in Engishiki (book of laws and regulations), circa 927AD.

Certain practices have varied over the years. Tools are more sophisticated now, and while the earliest paintings depict ama wearing only loincloths before the early Meiji period, their dress has since evolved - to the signature white outfits that they wore until the early Showa period, to the wetsuits they wear today.

Key customs are still observed, however. The ama community is a spiritual one, and the fisherwomen continue to offer up to 4,500 abalone each year to the grand shrine, Ise Jinguu, for the gods' blessings. The iconic head wraps that they wear are also adorned with symbols - the star (seiman) and the lattice (doman), believed to be talismans against underwater demons.

Armed thus, the ama head out to their dives, known as "50-second battles", during which they try to obtain as much seafood as they can using only the air in their lungs.

To control their breathing when they surface, ama employ a unique whistling technique called iso-bue, and the shrill, breathy sigh can often be heard when the fisherwomen head out to sea together.

"Ama friends are the same as family, beach sisters," says an ama interviewed by essayist Yuji Kawaguchi. "The basic rule for ama work is cooperation. Ama work cannot go extinct because it is very important."

The decline of ama culture is a real issue. The restrictive practice and harrowing conditions, combined with the fact that young people today are often university educated and more inclined to work abroad and to follow more lucrative careers than that of ama, mean that the ama population has dwindled to about 1,800, compared to the 6,000-strong community at its peak. The average age of ama today is 67 years old.

Nevertheless, modern ama continue to practise their trade with pride and fierce joy.

"I have no stress when I dive in the sea every day," an ama once said to novelist Shiho Tanimura. This ama has continued in her family business, and still uses the chisel passed down to her by her mother.

They may have traded simple loincloths for wetsuits, and primitive wooden buckets for nets, but the spirit of the heritage has endured, and it's that very spirit that keeps the beautiful ama culture alive to this day.

PEARLS OF WISDOM

In addition to diving for seafood, some ama also dive for pearls. Offshore Toba, the Mikimoto Pearl Island showcases the rich history of ama pearl divers. Kokichi Mikimoto was the first to culture pearls in 1893 . Prior to this practice, ama gathered Akoya pearl oysters from the ocean, at a time when pearls were revered for their medicinal qualities and their beauty. The increased demand for pearl oysters aided in the continuation of the ama culture, and in 1953, the community erected a statue of Mikimoto on the island.

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