Friday, 24 September 2010

Ama divers

These photos are from the 1930s to the 60s – a time when the women (and men) who worked the sea worked semi-naked. And a time when the anaemic skinniness too often currently put forward as an ideal Japanese womanhood (or more accurately girlhood) was still a thing of the future. A time in the past, for sure, but still living memory for some.

A back-story – explained this month in a Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in-house magazine article by John R. Harris – is of more ancient past: how the Onjuku ama-san of 400 years ago rescued shipwrecked Mexican sailors, starting a link that continues to this day between Mexico and Onjuku.  For 400 years this way of working continued. Now looking back only 40 years, it's gone. (Ama still work in parts of Japan, but not naked and sometimes only for tourist display.) Yet John, the author, who lives in Onjuku, knows of some of the women pictured – now perhaps in their 80s.

The photos appear in a book on the subject (now out of print) by a local sake-brewer-cum-photographer, Yoshiyuki Iwase – there are more on a website dedicated to him. There are a couple of photos in museums (and the one of the working women at the top of this page won Prime Minister's Prize in 1957, for example), and in Iwase's son's gallery at the sake brewery, but it's unclear where all the negatives are.

I designed the cover for the Number 1 Shimbun – in a style hinting at Life magazine. Read the article here.

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