AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

But how long can she hold her breath?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 8, 2009

JK pearl divers
ANOTHER SMALL STEP for Japanese-Korean amity was taken last week during a forum in Toba, Mie, convened by female divers to discuss their efforts to register their way of life as a UNESCO intangible cultural property. For centuries, women in both countries have dived without mechanical aids to catch abalone and other shellfish for a living. Japan and South Korea are the only countries in the world where it is a tradition for women to engage in this income-generating activity, and the working women of both countries have been forging closer ties in recent years. The Koreans initially approached the Japanese, as described in detail in this previous post. That they should work together is only natural—both groups of divers have a long tradition of working in each other’s country. And Toba was a natural place to meet, as half of the Japanese female divers live there.

While most of the ama attending were from Japan—63 came from nine prefectures—one of the Jeju Island haenyo participated, as well as a Korean researcher. The women shared their experiences in addition to discussing strategies for receiving UNESCO recognition. One participant said she had been born and reared in Tokyo, but was so eager to do the work she moved to Chiba. The Korean woman sang the traditional haenyo song.

Another diver who showed up and spoke at the forum was 19-year-old Omukai Chisaki, who is perhaps the first female abalone diver contracted for work because she catches the masculine eye as well as she catches shellfish. Ms. Omukai, hired specifically to serve as a tourist attraction, dives for abalone and poses for snapshots during the summer months in Kuji, Iwate. Perhaps she offered her fellow divers tips on cosmetics that retain their luster after long hours toiling underwater and the most fetching angle to place the goggles on the head when being photographed.

Omukai Chisaki

Omukai Chisaki

Speaking of photos, the accompanying screenshot shows why she was a hot topic this summer among Japanese weekly magazines and TV programs, despite the caption that says she is shivering. The shared culture meant that she also generated considerable buzz across the Korean Strait. A South Korean news report on Ms. Omukai’s summer job ranked fourth in total hits as a search topic in library computer systems on the day it appeared.

The elites won’t like to hear it, but it’s no surprise that cuteness provides more juice to bilateral relations than a boatload of summit meetings and academic conferences. Perhaps sending UNESCO officials to see Ms. Omukai in action would seal the deal for the organization’s approval. Seeing is believing, after all.

3 Responses to “But how long can she hold her breath?”

  1. Anonymous said

    Objectification: the true universal language.

  2. Aceface said

    Last month,I came across with these guys in Mie.
    The profession is breaking the gender barrier,
    http://news.walkerplus.com/2009/0708/8/

  3. RMilner said

    There’s no reason why the traditional women’s diving can’t be registered as a cultural property, even if men are joining in.

    The value of this specific tradition being registered is that it is international and links two nations which have some controversies between them.

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