Asia Business

Summit boost for Japan's 'women of the sea'

Female diver in the water in Mie, Japan
Image caption The number of ama or "women of the sea" is falling in Japan

For thousands of years, Japan's ama or "women of the sea" have turned to the ocean for their livelihood and meals. These female divers go out to the sea with minimal gear, and use their bare hands to land their catch.

These ama mainly live in the Mie prefecture, some 300km southwest of the capital Tokyo. The complex jagged coastline offers abalone, sea urchin, oysters and pearls.

But the number of traditional women divers is falling along with demand for their catch.

In the late 1940s there were over 6,000 of them in Mie alone. Today there are fewer than 1,000.

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Media captionJapan's ninjas have their roots in the country's Mie region, says the BBC's Mariko Oi

"You used to be able to make a living just being an ama," says 64-year-old Sayuri Nakamura, who has been diving for nearly half a century.

But now she relies on more visitors staying at the inn she runs with her fisherman husband. "For some business is good, for others it's not," she says. "For us, it's bad."

Image caption Female divers in Mie have turned to tourism as an alternative source of income

Tourist attraction

Not all ama have their own business as an extra source of income.

Many of them have joined forces and are marketing themselves as a tourist attraction. They operate in a specialised theme restaurant, where the meal includes a cooking and a dance performance.

But they are just one of the attractions that Mie has to offer. It is also home to one of Japan's holiest shrine Ise Jingu, and another of the country's vanishing professions, the ninjas - spies and assassins hired by samurai warriors.

While the area has long been a popular with Japanese tourists - there were nearly 10 million visitors last year - when it comes to foreigners Mie only welcomed 380,000 tourists.

That's far fewer than Tokyo's nearly 18 million or the five million who visited the ancient city of Kyoto.

Now though, this is about to change.

Image copyright Ise Jingu
Image caption Ise Jingu is one of Japan's holiest shrines

In two months' time, it will host the next G7 summit of economic powers. And ahead of it, the region is already seeing many more foreign faces.

"Since it was announced that we'd be hosting the G7 summit, Mie has seen the biggest jump in the number of international visitors out of all the prefectures across Japan," says Governor Eikei Suzuki.

"For a place which doesn't have an airport or a bullet train station, to achieve this was thanks to the publicity we received from the G7 summit," he adds.

Local think tank, Hyakugo Economic Research Institute, calculates the extra publicity will bring in 111bn yen ($976m; £691m) to the region over the next five years.

'Explosive buying'

This positive impact of tourism on the economy is what the rest of the country is also counting on, with Tokyo hosting the Olympics for the second time in 2020.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Governors and mayors from Mie have been swapping their suits for ninja outfits to help encourage more tourism

Already the number of foreign tourists coming to Japan has risen, reaching a record 19.7 million in 2015, according to Japan's National Tourism Organization. They spent nearly 3.5 trillion yen, a 71.5% rise on previous year.

Much of this has been due to the weakness of the yen, which makes holidaying in Japan cheaper for overseas visitors

More than a quarter of the visitors are from China who have become known for emptying the country's store shelves.

Their shopping sprees on everything from high-quality baby diapers to cosmetics and medicine are referred to as bakugai, or "explosive buying" in Japanese, and account for more than 40% of the total spending by foreign tourists.

In a country which has long tried to get local consumers to spend more without much success, tourism offers a rare bright spot for the economy.

An English term "inbound" has become a commonly used term in Japanese, and the government and businesses are trying to attract even more visitors.

Local benefits?

In Mie, the local government has created an "inbound association" and hired English speaking public relations representatives to invite foreign journalists.

It is even paying for their flights (please note - not the BBC's) to show off its cultural assets - especially food delicacies such as Matsusaka or black-haired Wagyu beef, famous for once fetching $440,000 a cow.

But will the benefits be felt by the local community?

Image caption "I have the ocean. I have the farm" says 64 year-old ama and inn owner, Sayuri Nakamura

We stayed at Ms Nakamura's inn where we paid $88 per person for one night's accommodation including dinner and breakfast, where both menus feature her catch.

It is much cheaper than an international hotel in the area. But with no English speaking concierge or a bathroom in each room, it is a tough sell for foreign visitors.

"To be honest, I don't want many more visitors," says Ms Nakamura with a cheeky grin. Throughout our stay, she seemed rather overwhelmed by the sudden spotlight that she and her fellow amas are receiving.

"I have the ocean, I have the farm, I have my daily routine which I enjoy - so it's ok not to have any more visitors."

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