A Red Pearl for Julia

At this singular spot on the Sea of Japan, bright blue bubbles floated about one or two meters above the water. As the bubbles burst, spoken words pop out.

(pop) My

(pop) name

(pop) is

(pop) Fumiya.

Sakichi and Hikedo see and hear this and it sends fear into their hearts as they prepare to dive again. They reassure each other that they must be imagining things as Fumiya has been dead for over three years. They are as sure of his death as they are sure of their knots, used to tie the net bag filled with rocks to his body. They know how to tie knots. It’s an occupational necessity.

Sakichi and Hikedo are “Ama-san” or “women of the sea”. They are freediving women who collect pearls. It’s a way of life, steeped in tradition, passed from mother to daughter that has existed for 3,000 years. Techniques for increasing lung capacity, learning how to read ocean currents, and where to find the best quality pearls are shared between mother and daughter. These are cherished family secrets and a means of ensuring a family’s livelihood.

Ama can hold their breath for over two minutes as they dive. Traditionally, they dove wearing only a loincloth and a headscarf. The headscarves are adorned with symbols which bring luck to the diver and ward off evil. Nowadays, the Ama don wet-suits and diving masks. They eschew the use of oxygen tanks from a deep sense of belonging which comes from living in the sea and being part of the marine web of life. They are so much a part of this life, that once the oysters harvest is complete, the Ama carefully return the oysters to the seabed.

The hearts of the Ama are part human and part sea creature. Their friends in the sea warned them that technology would lead to over-harvesting and destroy life; theirs, the abalone, the fish, the oysters, the zooplankton, and the 8,000 other forms of life in this sea. The Ama know how to listen to a living sea. They accept guidance. They understand limits.

Now, rumors of red pearls threaten their livelihood. Worse yet, it has brought a man into the sea of womanhood that the Ama love and fiercely defend. And one man, Fumiya, was responsible for this. Truth to tell, it was no rumor. Every Ama knew about the red pearls, where they were, and the need to protect them. And every Ama was sworn to secrecy.

Fumiya was from Toba, the same village as Sakichi and Hikedo. They had known him for most of their lives and never held him in any high regard. He was unmarried, which was uncharacteristic for men in the village. Like witches of the past, simply because they lived alone, there was suspicion about whether he worshiped the Onibi (鬼火). Onibi are spirits born from the corpses of humans and animals. They are resentful people that have become fire and suck out the spirits of any human who came too close. They are greedy denizens of the realm of hungry ghosts.

How Fumiya heard of the red pearls was a mystery. The Ama suspected that Onibi spirits may have told him in a dream but it was more likely that his mistress, an Ama herself, may have muttered the words in her sleep or a drunken moment.

Regardless, his fate was sealed. It wasn’t a complicated problem. Fumiya had to die. Even the sea said as much.

Hikedo was the first to notice the bubbles coming up over the oyster beds after being underwater for less than a minute. Motioning to Sakichi, they swam toward the bubbles. A man in scuba gear was working carelessly on the oyster bed prying at the living beings. In an instinctual moment, they knew what must be done.

The next day the man was back as they knew he would be. Sakichi and Hikedo were prepared. With the man’s attention focused downward on the oyster bed, they silently and swiftly dove towards him. With a single deft move, Hikedo sliced through the breathing tube while, at the same time, Sakichi wrapped him tightly in the rope used to attach to their wooden barrel diving buoy. There was no real struggle other than Fumiya’s struggle for air. It was over in less than a minute. Sakichi and Hikedo nodded at each other. For them, Fumiya died of natural causes. The Ama, like nature itself, are not malevolent but they are exacting.

With Fumiya dead, they quickly attached a net bag filled with rocks to his diving belt and let him sink. They then rose to the surface for the Isobue or “sea whistle”. The Isobue is used to relax the Ama during short surface intervals. It’s a unique breathing technique with a long and slow exhalation with the upper lip drawn over the lower. The Isobue complete, they dove back to the body as if diving for pearls.

Unhooking the net bag, they swam away from the oyster beds with Hikedo pulling Fumiya’s body and Sakichi pulling the rock bag. They surfaced twice to get to the prepared location where another net bag of rocks was stored. Both bags were tied securely to Fumiya’s diving belt. He had found his permanent resting place. Like so many of us, he became what he worshipped. Another Onibi was born.

Now, as Ama mothers speak to daughters and share the secret of where the red pearls are found, they add a cautionary tale of the Onibi. In the waters near the oyster beds, they are told to watch for blue bubbles floating above the water. They are sternly advised to stay a good distance from the bubbles, from the Onibi, and from any man who would suck the spirit out of them.