Stefan Dotter documents the ancient tradition of Japan’s female pearl-divers

View Gallery 5 Photos
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Explore more articles from the Power & Empowerment collection, currently in focus across 1854 & British Journal of Photography.

Dotter’s project focuses on the details within the everyday rituals of the ama: female free divers preserving the ancient art of sea foraging

Ama is a title ascribed to Japanese pearl divers, literally translating to ‘sea woman’. The ritual is thousands of years old, and has been passed down through generations. Traditionally, the ama wear white cloths, believed to ward off sharks. And, known to forage for pearls and shellfish, they are trained to dive up to 20 metres to the seabed, collecting their catch in wooden buckets that float on the surface. There are several theories as to why the job was almost exclusively attributed to women: the most popular being that they carry more body fat than men, improving their ability to withstand cold temperatures, and supposedly allowing them to hold their breath for longer. 

Today, the number of ama is diminishing. This is partly due to disinterest among younger generations, as well as the development of industrial pearl farming, and increasing job opportunities for women. As a result, the number of ama divers has decreased from 20,000 after the Second World War, to just 2,000 today. Many families have also moved away from traditional methods, wearing wetsuits instead of cloths, using plastic instead of wooden buckets, and diving for foods like abalone, sea cucumber and wakame seaweed, rather than pearls. In some seaside towns, the ama have become a tourist attraction, hosting open-air shows to demonstrate their practice.

Berlin-based photographer Stefan Dotter first learned about the ama through his good friend, a Japanese hairdresser whose father worked as a fisherman. Ever since he visited Japan for the first time in 2019, Dotter has been enthralled by its rituals and traditions, which he felt manifested in the minutiae of its society – from details in its landscape and architecture, to the preparation of food, and contemporary fashion. 

Dotter has continued to travel to Japan since his first visit. Before going, he usually pitches a few projects at a time, and once they have been commissioned, he bases himself in Tokyo for the duration (usually a couple of months). In March 2020, he intended to complete a series of commissions there, but because of Covid-19, all of his work was cancelled. So instead, he decided to use the spare time to pursue a personal project about the ama.

Dotter was able to make contact with the Nakagawas, an ama family based in Toba, Mie Prefecture. They invited him to stay at their home for a fortnight, to photograph mother anddaughter, Shizuka and Sanae, and their daily rituals passed down through generations of divers. “They offered me a glimpse into this tradition,” says Dotter, whose work focuses on the details of their daily rituals: the dainty metal attachments of their diving masks, a pair of feet moments before disappearing beneath the surface of the water, and a wooden barrel bobbing over its ripples. 

“What draws me towards the tradition is the fact that it’s fading away, and I want to preserve it somehow,” says Dotter. “This is what also draws me so much to documentary photography… Some things don’t last forever. But we can make it last a little while longer with the work that we do.”

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.