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Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012

Tohoku's 'ama' divers back in water


MORIOKA, Iwate Pref. — "Ama" divers Yaeko Nakagawa and Hiroko Omukai, who harvest sea urchins off Iwate Prefecture, returned to work just four months after the March 2011 disasters to help their wrecked coastal city of Kuji flourish again and preserve the tradition.

News photo
Testing the waters: "Ama" divers Hiroko Omukai (left) and Yaeko Nakagawa pose Sept. 5 in the coastal city of Kuji, Iwate Prefecture, which bore the full brunt of the March 2011 tsunami. KYODO

"Ama diving is tough and challenging, but I want people to see that we are hanging in instead of fleeing," said Omukai, 52.

The Kosode coastal area of Kuji is a popular tourist spot and the northernmost place in Japan where visitors can watch ama divers hunt for urchins. They operate from July to September.

Ama divers, who are all female, traditionally collect urchins, shellfish and other marine products without the use of modern equipment such as scuba gear or air tanks.

"This job is extremely rewarding and satisfactory when I bring sea urchins to the surface and an audience breaks into cheers," Nakagawa, 55, said.

The March 11, 2011, tsunami that laid waste to the northeast coastline swept away almost all of the fishing boats and nets on the beach where the two women are based, but their swimsuits and tools somehow survived intact.

Nakagawa and Omukai both said they felt afraid the first time they went back into the water, as the local breakwaters had all been swept away and high waves kept buffeting them and often smashing them against rocks.

But 1½ years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, seaweed is starting to recover on the seafloor and the sea urchin population, which feeds off it, is starting to recover too, they said.

Nakagawa has around 30 years of experience as a sea urchin diver, while Omukai started about 10 years ago, but despite the gap in experience they treat each other as equals and get along like sisters.

The two have been greatly encouraged by the recent formation of an ama club by seven local high school girls.

Nakagawa and Omukai said they feel happy when diving with the club's members, who may one day take over from them and keep the tradition going in the area.

They are also looking forward to a TV program called "Ama chan" that NHK plans to broadcast next spring, focusing on ama divers in Kuji and centered around a girl who wants to become one.

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