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Below the Surface: The freediving traditions of ama

Cultivated Days

In Yakataishi, a ward of Minato, sixteen men are registered ama (海士), a title that translates roughly as "sea warriors." At 63 years old, Hatsuo Sakamoto is the oldest of the group. "If you dive with oxygen tanks, there is no need to frequently resurface. You can uproot everything. But if you rely only on breath-holding, you are prevented from over harvesting," he says.

Plunge into the story of freedivers harvesting in harmony with the waters that surround Japan.

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  • Alessandra Rizzotti

    This photo series is gorgeous. I can't imagine what it might be like diving in Japan right now-- particularly with the effects of Fukushima. And it seems with what you've reported- there's crime connected to this.

    "Do you come in when your net is full?" I ask, wondering how he manages to track time. Sakamoto laughs and exclaims, "It never gets full!" Despite the measures ama have taken to implement sustainable practices, Sakamoto has observed changes to their ecosystem. He guesses that pollution and environmental factors are the main causes. The presence of seaweed is a reliable indicator of the health of the ocean floor, but of this, Sakamoto has witnessed a slow and steady decline.

    But there is another concern. Sakamoto's tone grows quiet as he alludes to a more immediate explanation for the depleted oceanic resources. Though he and other registered divers adhere to ama regulations with the hope the waters will support their families in perpetuity, there are some who are not so farsighted. Affluence in Minato is particularly suspect. Rumors circulate that the nicer homes are paid for through poaching. "The poachers go out with air tanks and headlights at night. It's a real problem," he says."

    • Cultivated Days

      Alessandra, Fukushima has for sure had an enormously devastating effect on ocean industries, but many other factors have been in effect since long before. Even in Minato, in waters far from Fukushima, local nuclear power plants have been leeching radiation into the waters for years. Yet through it all, Sakamoto and his group insist on staying true to the ama principles of sustainable harvesting. It's important to shine the light on the good people who take a holistic view. Thank you for reading!