Known as the Island of Sea Women, Jeju is home to lava caves, volcanic rocks and breath-taking landscapes, breeding the story of Haenyeo culture with its last generation. As the largest island in the South Korean province, Jeju is famous for its haenyeo, meaning sea women, diving into the depths of the ocean and gathering sea life from the ocean floor.
Ocean means life to Jeju islanders. Because of its volcanic topography, agricultural practices are very limited on Jeju. Grounded on that, Jeju folks regard the sea as a farm and treat it accordingly by harvesting marine life such as octopus, abalone, conch, sea urchins, and seaweeds. The sea women’s contributions to the island are priceless, which amazes everyone. Given that, during the last decades, the strong female presence of Jeju has attained great attention both in tourism and in academia.
What is more, UNESCO included Jeju on its heritage site list in 2007 with the title of “Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes.” Also, Jeju-haenyeo culture was inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage List in 2016. Today, Jeju, the backbone of the island’s economic and cultural features, is about to perish due to climate change and the diminishing interest in becoming a sea woman. In this article, I will try to walk you through Jeju Island and its geographic, cultural and religious systems. Then, I will turn to haenyeo culture embedded in the cultural ecosystem of Jeju.
The geography of Jeju Island
A self-governing province since 1946, Jeju Island is the largest island situated in the southern part of South Korea with a beautiful coastline stretching out for about 53 miles. This humid subtropical island has a 1.950 metre high volcano, which is the highest mountain in South Korea. And it’s this same Halla Mountain, which formed Jeju Island with its lava approximately 2 million years ago. At the peak of the mountain, there is a crater lake.
Of course, the definition of geography might vary. For instance, for the sea women, the main geography of the island is underwater, the ocean floor. That’s where they map the homes of abalone, octopus and other sea life forms. They know by heart their spawning seasons and when they should harvest them. Most importantly, in their traditional society, their knowledge about harvesting seasons was learned through their efforts to preserve marine biodiversity over a long history of fishing (Song 16). Referred to as ecological divers, the sea women maintain the biodiversity of the ocean.
Belief system in Jeju
Jeju’s local inhabitants explain the island’s origin and its geographical features through mythology. They think of the mountains and sea as the creations of gods and goddesses. For instance, the main creator goddess, the goddess of Mount Halla, is called Grandmother Seolmundae, while the goddess of wind is Grandmother Yeongdeung, and the goddess of the sea is Jamsugut. Foregrounding the importance of ancestral bonds, “grandmother” and “grandfather” precede the names of these divine spirits.
Home to 18,000 gods and goddesses, Jeju is said to have a specified version of Shamanism, which is mutism, another term for Korean Shamanism. The islanders perform shamanic rituals at their shrines and recite bon-puri, shamanic narratives which explain the origins of gods and goddesses.
This belief system tells us so much about how they understand nature, the ecosystem and how the islanders coexist with it. In the frame of Jeju-haenyeo culture, the sea goddess is very important. Before arriving at their diving spots, they start praying on the boat to feel the divine power of the sea goddess.
The history of Haenyeo culture
Free-dive fishing is a centuries-old tradition on Jeju Island, dating back to the 5th century. The first official record pertinent to the haenyeo belongs to Lee Gun’s 1629 report. Also, the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, Lee Ik Tae’s Jiyoungrock and We Baek Gue’s Jonjaejeonseo offer bibliographic data on the haenyeo.
In the beginning, diving was done by men. Because of the wars and sea accidents, men were outnumbered by women who had to take men’s responsibility. Women, as breadwinners, both work and take care of the children. They contribute to the domestic economy of Jeju island. Also, it turns out that free-dive fishing suits women more, since scientifically, women have higher body fat content and a shivering threshold, which makes them more tolerant to cold water, when compared to men.
The practise of Haenyeo
When the girls reach the age of 12, their training starts. This training teaches them to sense the water pressure and the amount of oxygen. They are expected to control their diving time and estimate when to resurface. Haenyeo or sea women can hold their breath for over 3 minutes when they dive up to 30 meters deep. They don’t even use any equipment, including oxygen tanks, but dive only in their wet suits and goggles. Until the 70s, they used to dive in white cotton clothes, which are now replaced by black rubber wet suits. Most of these sea women are in their 60s, you could also see ones in their 80s.
If we take a look at their terminology, muljil refers to the harvesting job they perform underwater, while sumbisori is a unique breathing technique, which is basically the whistling sound the sea women make when they aim for the surface. The sea women can stay in the water for approximately 7 hours, which may vary depending on the season. This freediving requires a lot of skills, wisdom, and intuition. That’s why there is a ranking among the sea women, divided into three groups, which are Sang-gun (high rank), Jung-gun(middle rank), and Ha-gun (low rank). Additionally, Dae-Sanggun refers to the ones who are more experienced and hold wisdom, making decisions in moments of crises to guarantee the safety of others.
Above all, perhaps the most mesmerizing part is that they hold a vast knowledge of the marine ecosystem, recognizing every element of it. It takes years of training and practise to master diving and be a sea woman.
Reciprocity as a duty
Sea women always work in groups. It is most likely that they have known each other for a long time, since their teenage years. This suggests that they have been sharing a community spirit and developing strong bonds with each other since their childhood. When it’s time for diving, the sang-gun (experienced ones) show the ones from a lower rank (ha-gun) how to dive. While the sang-gun is underwater, the ha-gun waits for the sang-gun to resurface safely. They want to make sure that everybody returns home safe and sound. In other words, they have a hierarchal system which aims to keep everyone safe.
Additionally, there are strict rules in the community built upon the community spirit. For instance, the higher-ranked diver (sang-goon) is obliged to give a certain portion of her catch to the lower-ranked diver (ha-goon), and at the same time, the lower-ranked diver is obliged to receive it. If either of them neglects their duties of giving or receiving the catch, the diver who neglects the duty will lose her authority (Song 8). In the nutshell, the community spirit is very important, and it is made possible through their commune belief systems and folk songs.
Song of the Sea Women
“Ieodo Sana” is the song they sing as the sea women are on the boat to reach their diving spots. Ieodo refers to an imaginary island as an Utopic place, a heaven, and afterlife. The haenyeo sing “Ieodo Sana” as an ode to their deceased friends and to wish themselves a safe return home. The second half of the song is as follows:
Row, row, row your boat
Let’s just go ahead.
Under the sea
are lots of clams and abalone,
But the weather hinders us.
Row, row, row your boat.
We gotta endure rough waves.
Sea women as an inspiration
“ I wanted to go back in time. I wanted to meet the water women who came before me and get a glimpse into their world. That’s what I got from meeting the Haenyeo- a sisterhood that stands as a capsule of strength and resilience, of struggle and freedom, of well-earned beauty, and the truest form of laughter I’ve ever heard.” Kimi Werner
Lessons from Jeju:Freediving and Motherhood documents how sea women are a source of inspiration. Kimi Werner has made her career in the ocean by diving, watching her male colleagues being a father and continuing their job. Yet, when it comes to herself, she has some questions. Mainly, she is concerned about being a mother, which might oblige her to give up who she is as a female diver. To answer these questions, she travels to Jeju island to hear the stories of sea women and what motherhood means to them. She realizes a whole different perspective that the sea women adapted. The sea women whom she gets to know even give birth on boats and continue their lives both as a diver and a mother.
Health problems of sea women
“ You have no idea how hard it is to come up when you are out of breath. It’s as if my bones were crashed and the ground below me were craving in. I get so dizzy, I almost sink. It’s like getting raindrops in my eyes. The dead in the underworld don’t breathe. So, some say diving is like carrying the bottom board of your coffin underwater”.
A sea woman in her 80s utters these words. Even though haenyeo might seem to be superhumans with extraordinary physical and mental resilience, they are just humans and limited like us. They lose so many friends on their journey to the ocean. It’s a risky job, a very risky business, a very risky contract with the ocean. The human body gets exhausted, it ages. The repeated pressure changes are dangerous for the body and damage the body tissues. In particular, sea women suffer from a syndrome known as “jamsu-byeong” that is common among Jeju haenyeo and includes not only chronic headaches but also digestive problems, joint pain, and tinnitus.
Haenyeo in popular culture
We see a lot of references to haenyeo culture in South Korean movies, TV series, literary works, as well as in music. It is a culture which needs to be documented in the words of the haenyeo and expressed through different mediums. To start with, My Mother, The Mermaid (2004), Canola (2016) are some of the films, while Tamra, the Island (2009) and Swallow the Sun are TV series which focus on the life of a sea woman.
As literary samples, Lisa See’ s 2019 novel, The Island of Sea Women, as an example of historical fiction, takes place on Jeju Island and focuses on the life and relationship of two sea women during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Also, Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies and the Sea is a compilation of sea women’s stories written by the American journalist, Branda Paik Sunoo, who documents the lives of haenyeo. More, she enriches her book with interviews and vivid photography, which testifies the uniqueness of the culture on the vast ocean.
Additionally, for those interested, there are documentaries available, such as the Documentary on 12 Year Old Korean Haenyeo Diver 1975.
Soft Sounds from Another Planet
“I want to be a woman of regimen
A bride in her home state
A diving woman of Jeju-do.” From the song “ Diving Woman”
The culture of haenyeo finds its music in the second studio album by Japanese Breakfast called Soft Sounds from Another Planet. The album has 12 songs with a theme that takes us back to earth. Releasing another indie record in 2017, Michelle Zauner has written all the songs on the album. The first song is “Diving Woman”, which pays homage to her native land, to her roots. Michelle Zauner explains the story of the song “ Diving Woman” in the following words:
“There’s an island in South Korea called Jeju that’s famous for its female divers, [who are called] haenyeo. With each dive, many haenyeo can plunge up to 30 meters and hold their breath for over three minutes. They collect abalone, conch, sea urchins and oysters and sell them at the marketplace. I really admire the haenyeo — that lifestyle, of regimen and endurance, was inspiring to me, particularly during a time when I was touring a lot. I think this song is also partially about feeling guilty about being a touring woman, and the fear that people were judging me for putting my career above having a family.”
Located on Jeju island, the museum has three exhibition halls. The exhibition hall 1 offers an introduction to Jeju’s traditional customs by exhibiting the traditional clothes and the replicas of household goods. Secondly, exhibition hall 2 displays the haenyeo clothes and the tools they use and a fireplace that sea women use to warm up their bodies. Thirdly, the theme of hall 3 is the sea itself, exhibiting traditional boats.
The museum also has an experience house for children and arranges activities such as trying the haenyeo’s clothing on. The museum is open between 9:00 and 17:00 both during the week and weekend. It closes only on the first Monday of every month.
Cultural Significance of Haenyeo Culture of Jeju Island in Anthropology
“There are many roles in Jeju women. Because we are strong physically and mentally, we can manage it.”
The Haenyeo culture tells us so many stories. It depends on the listeners whatever they want to take from their stories. For the haenyeo, it is all about surviving, making ends meet at the end of the day. Their existence is not merely a cultural variance in South Korea, their being means much more. As advocates of nature, the sea women maintain a sustainable life in the ocean with an eco-friendly attitude. More, they become models for many women while contributing to the domestic economy of their island. Also, with their mythologies, gods and goddesses, and folk songs, they hand down a cultural legacy, which makes Jeju Island as well as haenyeo culture a subject for anthropology.
The sea women are an inspiration source. Very resourceful themselves, they are the very symbol of resilience, freedom, independence, and wisdom. When we look at popular culture, we find so many references to the sea women. People like Kimi Werner travel to meet them and learn from these sea women. Unfortunately, this centuries-old tradition might come to an end due to climate change. The temperature of the sea surface has risen, which destroys the marine system, especially seaweed that is the food source for other animals. Secondly, the next generation are not willing to do this job. The truth is that we might only see sea women on the book covers, in academic papers and in popular culture from now on. Therefore, we should do something to remember and preserve it in our cultural memory.
Song, Wonseob. “Sustainability of the Jeju Haenyeo Fisheries System in the Context of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS)”
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