Japan's art of the ocean


In Ago Bay, located in central Japan’s Mie Prefecture, pearls that rank among the great beauties of nature ripen in the gentle waters – with a little help from humans.

Like a bent arm, the southern end of Japan’s Shima Peninsula curves protectively around Ago Bay. Around its 60 islands, long wooden rafts rock on gentle wavelets, safe from the ocean breakers. Underneath these platforms, in the sea’s embrace, grow oysters hiding rare beauties.

In this area, in the late 19th century, Japanese entrepreneur Kokichi Mikimoto successfully created the world’s first cultured pearl, catering to a human desire for beautiful things that nature alone didn’t have the capacity to meet.

Today there are 130 Akoya pearl farms in the Ise-Shima and Shima Hanto Kansai regions, some of which are open to the public and allow visitors to observe various stages of the cultivation and harvesting processes. Despite problems caused by the global recession, rising cost of production and availability of cheaper pearls from countries such as China, Japanese seawater pearls represent a historical practice that’s kept alive by skilled artisans.

Heavenly dewdrops

For as long as humans have collected pearls, their gently glowing surfaces have symbolised virtues such as modesty, chastity and purity. In Indian mythology, pearls are heavenly dewdrops that fall into the sea during the new moon and are swallowed by oysters. For the ancient Chinese, pearls represented honour, wealth and longevity.

Pearls have been used in many countries for their medicinal properties, and are still used in the pharmaceutical industry. Pearls of lesser quality that are unsuitable for jewellery are also used as raw materials by the cosmetics industry.

Some 100,000 species of oysters are found worldwide, but only half a dozen are used for pearl culturing. In 2009, the worldwide seawater pearl output was worth 370 million dollars at producer prices, down from 800 million in 1993.

Mother of all pearls

In 1888, Mikimoto and his wife Ume began pearl cultivation in his hometown of Toba, some 25 kilometres north of Ago Bay. He devoted decades to studying pearl culturing, patenting a system for culturing spherical pearls in the early 1900s.

Mikimoto opened new markets for cultured pearls, laying the foundation for today’s global pearl industry. He opened his first pearl shop in 1899 in Tokyo. In 1975, a Mikimoto shop opened on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Japan produces an estimated 12–15 tonnes of Akoya pearls annually, worth some 65–70 million dollars at producer prices (by contrast, thanks to its freshwater pearl industry, China produces about 1,500 tonnes of pearls yearly). A single freshwater mussel can yield many more pearls than an Akoya oyster, and according to Reuters, China’s pearl production capacity is 50 times that of Japan.

Diving for gems

Pearl Road, which runs south from Toba along the Pacific coast, offers panoramic views of the ocean. Toba’s other unmissable attractions include Mikimoto Pearl Island, a five-minute walk from the railway station by a bridge. The little island is a gem in itself, with a walking path that offers views of the lovely coastal scenery.

Pearl Island also hosts demonstrations by traditional female divers known as ama (literally “sea women”). The ama were part of Mikimoto’s success story; he hired them to collect mother pearl oysters before he developed the pearl oyster cultivation system.

Pearl diving is part of the illustrious history of the ama. Today a diminishing group of them – many middle-aged or older – still free-dive without gear, remaining under water for more than a minute as they collect various types of oysters as well as edible gastropods, sea cucumbers and seaweed. They welcome visitors to learn about their ancient traditions and to enjoy the seafood they harvest. The simple seaweed and shellfish dishes are often prepared over an open fire.

In his day, Mikimoto was an important employer for the ama. In gratitude, these divers put up a statue of Mikimoto on Pearl Island.

Text and photo by Pia Hyvönen
A version of this article was previously published in Finnair´s Blue Wings magazine (September 2010).


Published August 3, 2011

Category: Local features