|▲ Though the haenyeo is presently regarded as a symbol of Jeju, the women practitioners were once considered lower class in society. Photo by Brenda Paik Sunoo, Los Angeles photojournalist and author of "Moon Tides."
The haenyeo, or diving woman, is the “mermaid of Jeju Island.”
Her likeness is plastered all over Jeju, in wall murals and sculptures, paintings and photographs, souvenirs and tourism material.
For more than 1,700 years, Jeju women have been diving the sea to harvest shellfish and seaweed. They are unique in the world, their closest counterparts the “ama” in southern Japan.
Today there is a dedicated haenyeo museum, a school, tourist experience, displays in various museums and galleries, documentaries, books and other media.
Scholars like Yoo Chul-In are attempting to establish the profession as a form of eco-feminism. Others like Ko Chang Hoon hope to obtain UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status for the haenyeo. They are also a primary image for Jeju’s New7Wonders of Nature campaign.
Stories abound, of haenyeo who dive throughout pregnancy and return to the sea almost immediately after giving birth, of haenyeo as leaders of the Japanese resistance movement and in the 4.3 uprising, of haenyeo as evidence of a matriarchal society and example of feminism to women of the peninsula.
This is the haenyeo reborn. In fact, the very word “haenyeo” was coined and popularized by Jeju’s tourist industry. The word itself has little meaning, and the proper term is “jamnyeo” – diving woman – or the original Jeju dialect term “jamsu.”
The profession is practiced today almost entirely by women in their 50s and older. Their daughters, who grew up in a modern technological society of relative affluence, are not interested.
Efforts to preserve the profession, or at least to memorialize it, have cast it in a new and somewhat romanticized light.
In Korea, as in many areas of the developed world, “3D jobs” (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) are shunned. The work of the haenyeo has been similarly viewed.
Even as poems are written about the haenyeo and numerous scholars study their sub-culture, the profession itself is neither particularly admired nor sought after.
It is dangerous work. The threat of imminent injury and even death always looms.
The waters are classified in several categories according to risk, with the safest waters reserved for the elderly divers. All diving women know that at any time they could die beneath the sea, and many have.
Chronic headaches and overuse of analgesics are commonly found in haenyeo, according to a medical study published 3 years ago.
Historically, the diving women have also migrated to Busan, Japan, and China for work, enduring separation from their families for long periods of time. They are the first recorded seasonal migrant workers in Korea.
A haenyeo never operates independently, but always as a member of a working group.
They form economic cooperatives which are highly structured and hierarchical and meet in “bulteok,” or stone structures built next to the sea. The eldest and most experienced rule, and power descends accordingly in typical Neo-Confucian fashion.
|▲ Photo by Brenda Paik Sunoo, Los Angeles photojournalist and author of "Moon Tides."
Historically, women have always been viewed as part of a lower stratum of Jeju society, according to scholar Gwon Gwi-Sook. While their economic value is unquestioned, as female tradespeople without formal education, they have remained at a lower rung of the social structure.
Haenyeo are often viewed as leaders of the Japanese resistance movement, and there is ample historical evidence for this. However, scholars and historians view their struggle to be one of protecting economic interests as the resistance efforts resulted from increased fines and restrictions on their work. This was more a labor movement aimed at their colonizers than actual efforts at liberation.
The diving women have also been held up as a paragon of the strong Jeju female, leaders of an organic feminism, and as examples to other women.
While surely strong within their own cooperatives, the women have otherwise adhered to the gender distinctions of Korean society, historically without any right of inheritance, position in governance, involvement in the “chesa” ritual to ancestors, right to their own lines of credit, or even their own given names.
Though the diving women have always valued female children for their future earning capacity, according to scholar Hong Gui-Yong it remains that without a son to perform chesa for them after their deaths, they would not become a “legitimate ancestor.”
As reported by independent scholar Kim Yu Jeong, in death rituals the name and personal details of the deceased are not recorded for women but only for the men.
No historic record exists of a haenyeo as village leader or as owner of her own processing plant, according to Gwon. Even within their own households, they were not permitted to allocate their income for their own benefit.
“The haenyeo had no choice but to remain as women peasants,” Gwon reported.
With changes in Jeju’s economy and modern technological advances for fishery and the harvesting of sea products, the profession of the haenyeo is swiftly becoming outmoded. Coupled with its physical demands, toll on the body, and constant risk of injury or death, it is no longer sought after as employment.
Yet today the profession is valued in a new light, and the diving women of Jeju are finally being given some measure of respect.
The uniqueness of the haenyeo’s work cannot be overstated. The past undervaluing of women and the hardship of the profession itself must not be overlooked.
Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist living on Jeju.