“To Bond,” Ian Fleming wrote in his 1964 novel, “You Only Live Twice,” “they all seemed beautiful in the soft evening light … the gleaming, muscled buttocks, cleft by the black cord, the powerful thong round the waist with its string of oval lead weights.”
Fleming’s eroticized description of an ama-san, the pearl divers of Ise-Shima, Mie Prefecture, came back to me as I stared transfixed, not a little bewildered, at a poster outside Toba’s tourist information office. Here, over five decades on from 007’s fictional entrancement, was the highly charged image of a young diver in a transparent wet suit — the very embodiment of the erotic and cute. And how to interpret the rather prominent lighthouse in the background?
Instances of semi-nudity in photography and other forms of visual representation are common enough in Japan. Yoshiyuki Iwase’s series on the female divers of this region and Italian photographer Fosco Maraini’s work on the same theme were serious studies that, perhaps because of their male perspectives, are tinged with a yearning for their subjects, who come across as almost voluptuous. Ihei Kimura’s images of naked fisherwomen warming their bodies by fires along Kujukuri-hama, a long stretch of beach in Chiba Prefecture, provide an interesting contrast, representing elderly females, or those in advanced middle age. The photographer was more interested in the beauty of aging faces, scored by years of salt spray and saline winds, than in the sensual images taken of young women divers in the Toba region.
The reality of the ama divers is more prosaic. The women I encountered, fully clothed, powerfully built matrons, buttoned up in white diving suits about as revealing as Victorian bodices, were far removed from the images of fleshy sirens portrayed in early postwar photography. In their spotlessly white, full-body costumes, gloves, bonnets and goggles, today’s ama look remarkably like laboratory technicians.
Even on calm days, the air in Toba Bay is bracing, the brine-scented sea breezes invigorating. Much time could be spent exploring the countless inlets of the Ise Peninsula, but even confining oneself to the small port of Toba yields much of interest. Despite the predictable clutter surrounding its railway station, ferry terminal, landing jetties and fish restaurants, there is a timeless quality to the bay. It’s apparent in fine alterations of light as the waters change from the muted hues of a shrine mirror to the deepest aquamarine.
In all probability, Toba would have remained a charming but unremarkable fishing village were it not for one extraordinary man: Kokichi Mikimoto (1858-1954). Mikimoto began his working life as a boy hawking noodles on the street. Personal wealth and the chance to hobnob with European royalty and the likes of Thomas Edison would come later.
The astonishing rise to world fame and commercial success began after he successfully created the first cultured pearl in 1893. Six years later, he opened his first jewelry store in the fashionable Ginza district of Tokyo, a site that it still occupies. The business spawned a second store, Mikimoto Ginza 2, designed in 2004 by renowned architect Toyo Ito. The striking, pink, nine-story building is hard to miss thanks to its irregularly contoured windows, said to replicate the air bubbles released by pearl divers.
To get a better idea of Toba’s pearl operation and its creator, take but a few steps from the quay across a stubby bridge to Mikimoto Island. Visitors first encounter a small exhibition room before entering the main display sections of the museum. Among the exquisite artworks on show are a scale replica of the Five-Story Pagoda at Horiyuji Temple made from an astonishing 12,760 pearls; a highly original, pearl-studded kimono obi exhibited in Paris in 1937; a pearl crown designed for Queen Mary; and sundry, sumptuous objet d’art, including rings, broaches and inlaid hair ornaments.
Here is a museum for people who dislike museums. Like all good museums, it is the small, telling details that command our interest. We discover, for example, that Mikimoto asked a friend who was a dentist to design the tools used in the long, painstaking process of cultivating pearls. Film clips, good English signage and models explain the painstaking process of insemination, harvesting, drilling, threading and marketing of pearls.
After a foreign object is artificially placed into soft oyster tissue, it begins as a natural defense to secrete nacre, a pearly substance that coats the intruding particle. As a sack starts to take shape around the seeded nucleus, more nacre is created, layers are added, and in this way the pearl is formed. Oysters are placed in submerged baskets suspended below pearl rafts sited close to the mouth of Toba Bay, where the stronger currents provide fresh supplies of plankton. The sight of these pearl rafts is an image strongly associated with the region.
During the winter months before harvesting, the shells have to be transferred to warmer waters. The three-year insemination process produces only a small percentage of gem-quality pearls. Many of the shells have none at all, while others will contain defective elements. Even if a fully formed pearl is extracted, it may be rejected on the grounds that it is too muddy, dark or irregular, characteristics that strip the pearl of all commercial value.
Naturally, the work of the ama divers is a prominent feature of the museum. We learn that denser subcutaneous layers of fat in women insulate them against the colder depths, and that the female respiratory system is stronger than that of males. This is just as well, as oxygen tanks are dispensed with, the only concession to equipment being a pair of goggles. The white of their insulated suits is said to repel sharks and jellyfish. Just for good measure, a red symbol embossed on their wet suits acts as a talisman against evil.
The clothing may have changed, but the work done by the divers remains as demanding as ever. The women work tethered at the waist by rope to wooden tubs. Many work alongside their husbands, who pay out the binding from small boats. Beneath the waves, oyster diving has largely been replaced by the search for kelp, octopus, turban snails, sea cucumber, agar seaweed, Ceylon moss and abalone conches. In a clear example of the connection between food, marine culture and Shintoism, samples of abalone caught by ama divers, regarded as sacred items, are offered to the sun goddess Amaterasu at Ise Shrine. Fortified with charms and a powerful link to the gods, ama are literally ready to face sea monsters.
A milder confrontation with the sea takes place on the hour, when a schooner carrying ama arrives at the island’s dock, where they proceed to give a demonstration of diving. I have seen these carefully pre-arranged performances several times. An abalone, covertly concealed in the folds of the diving suit, or carefully secreted on the seabed itself, is held up by the surfacing ama as if it were a symbol of everlasting abundance — all this with the predictability of a conjuror’s act. It does make a point, though, and if the visuals are a little cheesy, it’s no different from other forms of performance where suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite. Before leaving the museum grounds I pause at an imposing bronze statue of Mikimoto. His face appears to scan the bay and his granite jaw is a study in unflinching personal vision.
A little south of Toba, along the so-called Pearl Road, a unique museum reinforces Ise Peninsula’s marine credentials. Housed in well-appointed modern structures, exhibits at the Toba Sea Folk Museum highlight the link between the region and seafaring activities, traditions, festivals, local superstitions and fishing methods. The Repository of Wooden Boats, a vast, hangar-like warehouse, features a stunning collection of original vessels representing fishing boat designs from Japan and other Asian maritime nations.
Visitors to the peninsula invariably return to the pine-studded coastline, sandy inlets and emerald and indigo sea of Toba Bay, where, in environmentally embattled Japan, we find that rarest of things — a little-changed setting. The carefully maintained ecology of these aquamarine waters remains the province of the ama divers. It may be that nature is better off in the custody of women.
In James Nestor’s 2014 book, “Deep,” an ama diver affirms, “When a man comes to the ocean he exploits it and strips it. When a woman puts her hand in the ocean that balance is restored.”
JR and Kintetsu line trains run from Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka to Toba. Regular buses run from outside Toba Station to the Toba Sea Folk Museum. There are English-speaking staff at the tourist information office in the station area, which has free Wi-Fi access.