In assessing the social status of a certain occupation, some questions can serve as useful indicators: “Are you willing to tell others what your parents do for a living?” or “Would you like your children to follow in your career footsteps?” For the women divers of Jeju as well as their families it could be somewhat awkward to answer these questions. But they can now take a measure of pride in their work as the Korean government is trying to have the haenyeo inscribed on unesCo’s representative list of the intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
For centuries, the “sea women” of Jeju Island have earned a living by free-diving into the sea to harvest seafood by hand. And despite being the primary breadwinners, while their husbands did little to contribute to the family’s income, the divers did not receive much respect and were even frowned upon due to their revealing work outfits. Their children are reluctant to mention their mother’s job, and most divers do not want their daughters to follow in their footsteps. Kim Eun-sil, the 80-year-old haenyeo who was recently featured in The New York Times, raised her five children by working in the cold seas, but her only daughter does not even know how to swim.
Statistics also testify to this decline in the island’s indigenous female divers. According to the Jeju Provincial Government, the number of haenyeo has plunged from 23,000 in 1965 to less than 4,600 today, of whom 50 percent are aged 70 and older. With the annual death rate among the elderly divers averaging about 130, compared to the inflow of new divers at only about 15, their population is likely to fall below 1,000 in the foreseeable future. Without drastic measures to reverse the trend, this age-old occupation is bound to disappear sooner than later.
Recently, various policy proposals have been discussed to keep the tradition alive. Above all, the government could designate the female divers as cultural heritage title holders, just as it does for traditional artists and artisans, and also introduce measures to attract and train new recruits. The haenyeo could be seen in a new light by developing cultural contents based on their everyday lives and legendary tales, and promoting their images as “strong mothers,” “daughters of the sea,” or “living mermaids.” In addition, their diving skills could be applied to everyday sports and other leisure activities such as swimming and skin/scuba diving.
Efforts have been made to shed a new light on this rich tradition and to boost its relevance in our time. The public and private sectors have worked together to nominate the haenyeo of Jeju for UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage. The provincial government has offered courses to train amateur divers and organized festivals based on the “sea women” theme. Fishing villages around the island provide tourists with overnight lodging and shellfish gathering tours. A local animation studio has developed cute cartoon characters based on female divers, like “Little Diver Mongni” and “Island Kid Sojungi.”
Yi Han-yeong, who heads the nonprofit Association for the Preservation of Haenyeo Culture, has recognized the potential of the sea women as a subject for cultural contents. He had been working as a skin/scuba diving instructor on the mainland before visiting Jeju to learn about the skills of its women divers. He then enrolled at the Jeju Hansupul Haenyeo School, which changed the course of his life. He ended up moving to the island and opening a business involved in a wide range of activities: producing vitamin tablets from the seaweed collected by women divers, popularizing recreational diving, planning aquatic events and performances, and water tank cleaning. Among the events he has planned is the popular performance by female divers presented four times a day in the 20-meter-deep water tank at Aqua Planet, the largest aquarium in Asia.
Built by the Jeju Provincial Government and operated by Hanwha Hotels & Resorts, Aqua Planet is larger than the celebrated Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa, Japan. The divers performing there, over 70 years of age on average, are from the fishing village cooperative of Goseong and Sinyang. Their performances earn a rousing response, especially among viewers of the older generation. The elderly performers are deeply moved by the audience’s enthusiasm. With tears in their eyes, they say, “I’ve never been so proud of my job before,” or “It seems my lifelong wishes have come true.” Some of the divers have become so well-known that they are featured in public media and are even invited to give lectures.
Yi Han-yeong explains that during Korea’s industrialization period, the sea products gathered by these divers were exported to Japan, helping to earn much needed foreign currency. The women divers not only supported their own families but contributed to the wealth of the nation. Yi claims that this type of contribution is quite rare among workers in primary industries and believes that the unique narrative of these women has great potential for the development of cultural contents.
Starting over at Haenyeo School
Jeju Hansupul Haenyeo School, located in the fishing village of Hallim, recently recruited students for its seventh class. Although a class is usually limited to 50 students (35 from the island, 10 from other parts of the country, and 5 from foreign countries), the school accepted 70 students out of 240 applicants this year. The number of applicants from the mainland has increased every year in line with growing interest in the island’s “slow life.” The school is not actually an institution to train professional haenyeo, but two or three women of every class enroll with the hope of joining their ranks, usually with recommendations from fishing village cooperatives. Among last year’s graduates, two women from the mainland are serious about their desire to become divers. They are best friends 12 years apart in age — Shin Dong-seon, 27, a web designer, and Chang Mi-ra, 39, a photographer.
Shin donated her talent by creating a website for the school. As the only daughter in her family, she had to persuade her parents to accept her decision by reminding them of the happy times they enjoyed on fishing trips to the sea or mountain streams when she was a young girl. Shin, who would be the youngest haenyeo, wants to open a fusion restaurant that serves seafood dishes made with the bounty freshly harvested from the sea every morning. She is saving the money she earns working for an IT company in Jeju city in order to move to the fishing village of Aewol to realize her dream by the time she turns 30.
Chang, on the other hand, came to Jeju to take photos of haenyeo, not just as artistic subjects but to capture the vivid stories of their challenging lives. Eventually, she decided to become a diver herself. Living in the village of Seongsan, she joined an entertainment group of haenyeo performers as the only member with no diving background. Whenever help is needed to clean up the coastal areas, as the youngest member of the group, Chang takes it upon herself to see the job through. Her dream is to one day open a photo studio for sea women.
Sea Women Festival and Museum
The Haenyeo Festival, a regular autumn event on the island, is sponsored by the provincial government and publicized as the only women-oriented folklore festival in Korea. It started out as a small community event of Gujwa village in 2007. As its popularity grew, the provincial government took over in 2011 and developed the event into an island-wide festival. Divers from all villages of the island participate in the festivities, which include a parade, swimming and diving contests, and various other programs. Some people even call it the “Mini Haenyeo Olympics.” It’s a real celebration, with village residents served hot noodles at a separate booth, and gifts of seafood like abalone and croaker handed out to tourists and visitors.
For the parade, divers from different fishing village cooperatives vie to show off their originality, appearing in outlandish outfits and gear — for example, riding electric bikes, or waving oars high in the air. At last year’s festival, a divers’ choir from Hado village, named “Haenyeo Generation” [after the popular idol group “Girls’ Generation”] was greeted with raucous cheering and applause. Instead of their melancholy work songs, they performed comical songs with lyrics in the regional dialect and other exciting pieces. Yang Bang-ean (also known as Kunihiko Ryo), a well-known Korean composer based in Japan, whose family is from Jeju Island, presented them an original song titled “The Daughters of the Sea.”
Apart from the annual festival, there are regular programs for tourists to enjoy year-round. The most popular are the various activities offered at the fishing villages of Sagye and Hado. For example, visitors can dive in shallow water under the guidance of local divers, and they can go on tours to gather conch, crab, sea urchin and other items. Hado village offers a program for tourists to visit bulteok, the traditional open-air shelters of women divers.
The Haenyeo Museum is another popular tourist attraction. On my visit, I was deeply moved upon seeing a black-and-white photo of a young diver breastfeeding her baby. Standing near her, with his back to the camera, was her son who looked to be six or seven years old. As a mother of young children myself, and having left behind my glamorous life on the mainland to live on the island, I felt a deep affinity with the young diver in the photo. During my first year on Jeju, my second child was less than a year old. Whenever my baby whined and fretted, I found a corner and breastfed him, no matter where I was — waiting for my son in the school corridor, socializing with other mothers in my neighborhood, or carrying out other tasks. When I saw the photo at the museum, my eyes welled up with tears as the life of the young diver, who had to go out to sea with her baby lying in a basket on the beach, somehow overlapped with my difficult days of adapting to a new place away from my friends and my work.
The islanders call the divers the “mothers of the sea.” The time I spent at the museum, pondering the meaning and the power of motherhood, had a therapeutic effect on me. And it seems I was not alone. A woman who introduced herself as the mother of a 12-year-old child living in Gyeonggi Province posted a request on the museum’s website to upload a video clip of sumbi sori, the whistle-like sounds that the divers make letting out their breath when they come up to the surface after long minutes under the water. The woman came across the video at the museum but the sounds would not leave her mind even after she returned home. In her post, she said she wanted to listen to the sounds whenever she needed to lift her spirits. The museum heeded her request by uploading the video clip. In addition to displays and exhibitions, the museum also offers an experience program for children, called “The Little Haenyeo,” which provides a taste of what it’s like to be a sea woman.