A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 4/12/2013. Photo courtesy of the Haenyeo Museum

By Kim Young-jin

HADO-RI, JEJU ISLAND — This wind is not good, says Kang In-sook, peering out of a seaside shelter as she untangles a traditional fishing basket. As the waters are choppy, she may not able to use her equipment this day, despite the early morning sun.

Squatting, Kang assesses the weather, hoping to fill her basket with abalone, conch, octopus and sea urchin as she has since childhood, diving alongside other women from her village.

“Let’s wait and see,” Kang tells other divers as they file into the small space. They are among some 4,500 remaining “haenyeo,” or women divers in Jeju, who free-dive without breathing equipment. At 66, Kang is a senior diver in this village on the island’s northeast coast.

As murky as the water might be, so too is the future for the aging haenyeo. Their lifestyle, passed mother-to-daughter for generations, is endangered due to rapidly-dwindling numbers.

Once looked down on as common laborers, society now reveres them as symbols of feminine strength. But their dwindling number poses questions about preserving their traditions; and what losing them would mean to Korean society.

“We are the last generation,” says Kang, heading outside.

Changing times

“These conditions are good for sea creatures ㅡ they like to play in it,” Kang says as she fills a kettle in a small, adjacent building where the divers gather. “But for us, it’s difficult and dangerous.”

Several others on the floor curse their luck; due to government regulations, they are only allowed to dive 12 days per month. Kang calls the local fisheries union to see whether they will lose a day.

Over coffee, the women, mostly in their 50s and 60s, reminisce about past decades when they dove whenever they pleased. But while every opportunity to work is valuable, life is not as difficult as it once was.

In the mid-1960s, the number of haenyeo stood at some 23,000, comprising more than 20 percent of the island’s women. But an emphasis on tourism and development caused the number to plummet. Today, nearly all divers are aged over 50.

Like most, Sohn Hwa-seon, 59, became part of the tradition due to poverty.

“I begged my mother to let me go to school. But every day I was told to learn how to dive. It was about survival,” she said.

Due to the country’s appetite for seafood and the efficiency of the divers, the work, though grueling, has become a respectable source of income. The women said they earn some 2 million won per month as divers on Jeju, and more if they work seasonally in Chungcheong Province on the mainland. Many work into their 70s.

But the development of the island, including the education system, opened greater opportunities for their daughters.

“For children, with school, there’s just no time anymore,” Sohn said.

“I didn’t get an education, so I wanted my daughter to get one. Now she’s proud of me because I put three children through university.”

A haenyeo removes an octopus from a fishing basket near Pyoseon village on Jeju. / Young Jin Kim

A haenyeo removes an octopus from a fishing basket near Pyoseon
village on Jeju. / Young Jin Kim

Tradition

The wind is calmer on the south side of the island, and orange buoys ㅡ the most visible marker of haenyeo at work ㅡ dot the waters near the village of Pyoseon. The divers, clad in dark wetsuits, hang on to their floats to rest, and place their catch in nets attached to them.

The women swim as deep as 20 meters and use iron tools to harvest the ocean’s bounty. When they breach the surface, they emit an eerie whistle as they breathe ­ a habit shared with their Japanese counterparts called “ama.”

On shore, two haenyeo empty their nets, spilling out abalone, sea urchin and a large, undulating octopus. Squatting by the road, they crack the urchins with a rock and shuck the bright yellow meat. A man from the fisheries union stops by in a truck and weighs the catch.

The free-diving technique is said to underpin an ecologically-sound approach because it limits the length of time spent underwater. Experts add that the women have long used sustainable measures, harvesting only larger creatures and reseeding certain species.

But medical risks are associated with the diving, including, most commonly, chronic headaches and tinnitus.

‘Strong Jeju women’

In Hado, the women linger, when suddenly, a haenyeo from a nearby village barges in and accuses them of diving in her zone. (Each village owns the right to fish its own waters). The women laugh when she leaves, as suddenly as she came in.

The scene reflects a self-governing system that has long been a unique characteristic of haenyeo.

Scholars say that during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), men on Jeju were taxed more heavily than women, leading to the unusually large female workforce. During the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), haenyeo were hired to harvest seaweed that was then exported to Japan ㅡ giving the women rare economic power.

This contributed to a culture on Jeju in which women and men worked together as breadwinners, scholars said, in contrast to the strict patriarchy across the rest of the country.

As their economic influence grew, haenyeo donated money to build schools and have made efforts to assist the elderly.

“Haenyeo worked very hard for village development,” Jeju National University professor Yoo Chul-in said, noting that building the image of the “strong Jeju woman” was among their notable contributions.

Cho Hae-joang, a cultural anthropology professor at Yonsei University, added, “Haenyeo’s economic power and psychological independence…have always been well known to Koreans living in a male-centered agrarian tradition.

“The image has been popular and has worked well for arousing a feminist spirit.”

Nostalgia

The haenyeo admit they are often annoyed by journalists and tourists who drop by unannounced to take photographs or to talk. But they also realize that the attitude toward them has changed due to their falling numbers.

“People used to look down to on us. Now we are seen as excellent,” said Kang, the diver, giving an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

Various efforts have been launched to maintain and preserve the tradition, including the Jeju Haenyeo Museum, which is campaigning to register haenyeo as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage; and the Hansupul Haenyeo School, which teaches participants about the diving culture. Statues and murals depicting haenyeo in their 1960s heyday dot the island.

“Haenyeo are a model of sustainable development of humanity,” said Kang Kwon-yong, curator at the haenyeo museum.

The haenyeo system itself may perhaps pose the biggest challenge to its own preservation. Joining a collective is said to be difficult for outsiders because applicants must live in a village and competition over limited resources causes resistance to new divers.

The low numbers also pose larger questions about the effect of rapid modernization on Jeju culture, which residents say is quickly losing its traditions. “So many things are vanishing so rapidly in Korea now,” Yonsei professor Cho said.

Cho believes the best way to preserve the culture is to help it evolve. “They can survive only if they can come up with a beautiful way to transform haenyeo’s activities and life into a tourist business.”

Asked whether they were proud of their tradition, the haenyeo politely demurred, saying they have always considered it work.

Kim Mae-jeong, a 56-year-old haenyeo known as one of the village’s best earners, was more reflective. “It is sad, especially because of the lifestyle,” she says. Pausing, she adds, “Tell them the haenyeo from Hado are beautiful.”

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