Title: Women of the Sea 海女


From the appearance of a diver by the name of Kissy Suzuki in the James Bond movie ‘You only live twice’ to the depiction in a painting by Hokusai showing a young diver entwined sexually with a pair of octopuses and ultimately a vice documentary in 2018 - The image of the Ama ( 海女 ), meaning ‘Sea Women’, pops up every now and then. The romantic traditional way, which roughly came to an end in the 1960s, had the divers wearing only loin cloths as it was believed that the colour white would make them appear bigger underwater and ward off sharks. Nowadays the work is done in scuba gear with slightly more modern equipment - but the mystery remains. The history of female pearl divers dates back as early as 927 AD during the Heian period in Japan, but the craft is believed to be more than 2.000 years old. While most of the business of the Ama is based on the gathering abalone, horned turbans, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and other delicacies - there was a revolution in the Toba area when Mikimoto Kōkichi started the production of the cultured pearl and had divers focusing on pearls only. There is also a strong association between water and sex. In traditional Japanese woodblocks and erotic prints known as Shunga, rivers, rain, rain clouds, and even umbrellas were devices used to show their viewers sexual tension. In the case of umbrellas, a closed umbrella over a man might represent a phallic shape. Japanese merpeople were often mermaids, and there are several stories of men being lured into the sea by female dragons and other creatures. As I headed out to the town of Osatsucho ( 相差町 ) in the Mie prefecture of Japan, the wonderful mother daughter team of Sanae & Shizuka Nakagawa took me in to show me their world beneath the surface and what it’s like to be an Ama in modern times.


Life Framer 2020 by Alex Prager
Palm Photo Prize 2021 Shortlist

Selected Press:

British Journal of Photography
This Is Paper Magazine
Huck Magazine
Common Language Magazine
C 41 Magazine

Special Thanks to

Yamazaki Masafumi
Tatsuo Inoue
Sanae Nakagawa
Shizuka Nakagawa
Saki Satonaka
Masayo Uemura
Hardel Gildas
Wataru Suzuki

© Stefan Dotter, 2021