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Hangul 해녀
Hanja 海女
Revised Romanization Haenyeo
McCune–Reischauer Haenyŏ

Haenyeo, literally "sea women,” refers to female divers in the Korean province of Jeju. Known for their independent spirit, iron-will and determination, the haenyeo are representative of the semi-matriarchal family structure of Jeju.[1]:1

History of haenyeo[edit]

Jeju’s diving tradition dates back to 434 C.E.[2]:100  In the beginning, diving was an exclusively male profession, with the exception of women who worked alongside their husbands.[2]:101The first mention of female divers in literature does not come until the 17th century when a monograph of Jeju geography describes them as “Jam-Nyeo,” literally “diving women.”[2]:101

By the 18th century, female divers, at this point commonly referred to as haenyeo, outnumbered male divers.[3]:1  Several explanations exist for this shift: 1) The government placed a heavy tax on harvests gathered by male divers[3][4]:1[5] 2) Between the 17th and 18th century, a significant number of men died at sea, either in war or deep-sea fishing accidents[1]:1[6] 3) Physiologically, women have more subcutaneous fat and a higher shivering threshold than men, making them more equipped to withstand cold waters.[2]:101

Whatever the reason, as sea diving became a female-dominated industry, many of the haenyeo subsequently replaced their husbands as the primary breadwinner.[3]:533[6][7]:1 This trend was especially prominent after the Japanese colonized Korea in 1910 and sea-diving became much more lucrative.[8] Up until this point, much of what the haenyeo harvested was given to the Choson government as tribute.[8] When the Japanese took over, however, they abolished this tradition, allowing haenyeo to sell their catch at market and make a profit.[8] Additionally, Japanese and Korean merchants hired haenyeo to work for them in Japan and on the Korean mainland as wage-laborers, increasing their financial situations greatly. On Yeonpyeong-ri, an island near Incheon where many haenyeo worked, their wages, on average, constituted 40 to 48 percent of a typical family’s total income.[8]  The prominent place of haenyeo in Jeju’s economy and in their individual family units continued long after Japanese colonization.  In the early 1960s, for example, haenyeo harvests accounted for 60% of Jeju’s fisheries revenue and 40% of haenyeo husbands remained unemployed.[2][6]

Haenyeo and Jeju’s society[edit]

Because so many families relied on the haenyeo for the majority of their income, a semi-matriarchal society developed on Jeju with the haenyeo at the head of the household.[5][8] On the tiny islets off the coast of Jeju, such as Mara Island, where sea-diving was the sole source of income, this reversal of gender roles was taken to the extreme; men would look after the children and go shopping while the women would bring in money for the family.[5]  Other manifestations of Jeju’s unique society include men paying a dowry to the family of the bride (a reversal of the custom on the Korean mainland) and families celebrating the birth of girls over the birth of boys.[4][9]

While certain elements of a matriarchal society surfaced in Jeju, they were not enough to completely overcome the predominance of Confucianism. As a result, beyond the domestic sphere, little else about Jeju society was different than what existed on the Korean mainland. For example, men filled all political leadership roles and were the only ones who could perform ancestor-worship ceremonies and inherit property and the familial line.  Furthermore, during the era of colonial rule, haenyeo remained peasants, never moving up the chain to become small-business owners or managers of sea-food manufacturing plants.[8] Even in the home, most haenyeo remained the primary caregiver and handled at least half of the domestic chores.[2]:107

Today, things have changed. The haenyeo are celebrated as one of Jeju’s most valued treasures. The Korean government shows its appreciation for the unique contributions of the haenyeo to Jeju’s culture by subsidizing their gear and granting them exclusive rights to sell fresh seafood.[5][6] Furthermore, in March 2014, the government requested the UNESCO to add haenyeo to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.[4]

Declining numbers[edit]

Like many other vestiges of the past, the sea-diving industry has fallen victim to industrialization. Beginning in the 1960s, the Korean government sought ways to jumpstart the country’s economy in every province. Because Jeju was not a practical place to build factories, the Korean government decided to turn it into an exporter of mandarin oranges. By 1969, a majority of rural workers had joined this new industry. Additionally, about 2% of all land in Jeju was dedicated to farming mandarin oranges. In the 1970s, the government launched another program to bolster Jeju’s tourism industry.  By 1978, tourism had surpassed agriculture as the island’s largest industry.[8]

All of this change had a significant impact on haenyeo numbers. Given alternatives to back-breaking labor in miserable conditions, women abandoned the sea-diving industry in droves.[8] In the five years between 1965 and 1970, numbers dropped from 23,081 to 14,143.[8] Even more damning to the haenyeo way of life, education opportunities and attractive positions in emerging industries has deterred younger girls from becoming haenyeo.[8][10]:2350 In 1970, 31% of haenyeo were 30 years old or younger, 55% were between 30 and 49 years old and only 14% were 50 or older. As of 2014, however, 98% of haenyeo were over the age of 50.[3]:2

Developmental process, gear, diving pattern and harvest[edit]

Traditionally, girls started to train to become haenyeo when they were 11 years old.  Beginning in shallow water, trainees worked their way up to more challenging depths. After about seven years of training, a girl was considered a "full-fledged" haenyeo.[2]:102 Today, the oldest haenyeo are over 80 years old and have been diving for more than 66 years.[11]

All together, the tools of a haenyeo consist of a wetsuit, goggles, gloves, chest weights (to assist diving) an L-shaped weeding hoe, and a net attached to a floatation device.[11] The haenyeo stash their catch in these nets until they are done for the day.[11]

How long the haenyeo spend in the water depends on the season. Before wetsuits were available and all they wore were cotton swimsuits, haenyeo could only stay in the water for up to an hour at a time during the winter months. After an hour, they got out of the water and sat by the fire for 3–4 hours to dry off. After this break, they would jump back into the water for another hour.  During the summer months, however, they stayed in the water for up to 3 hours at a time before a break.[5] With the introduction of wetsuits, haenyeo found they could stay in the water for five to six hours at a time, even during the winter.[7]:535

With each dive, haenyeo plunge up to 30 meters deep and can hold their breath for over three minutes.[5][11] Their harvests consist of abalone, conch, octopus, sea urchins, sea squirt, brown alga, top shell, a variety of sargassum, oysters, sea slugs etc.[2]:106[5]:2350[6][8][10][11] The divers must contend with dangers such as jellyfish, poor weather and sharks.[11][12]

Haenyeo in contemporary culture[edit]

My Mother, the Mermaid, a 2004 film about a mother (who used to be a haenyeo) and her daughter.

Tamra, the Island, a 2009 television series set in the 17th century, in which the heroine is a haenyo.

Swallow the Sun, a 2009 television series in which the protagonist's mother is a haenyeo.

Haenyeo: Women of the Sea, a 2013 short film about Chewar Park, a still active 82-year-old Haenyeo diver. Examining her daily routine as well as her past, Park sheds light on this unique matriarchal culture that has changed little since the 19th century.[13][14][15]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Woman Power Deep Below the Sea". Business Korea. January 2003. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Hong, SK (1965). "Hae-nyo, the diving women of Korea". In: Rahn, H; Yokoyama, T (eds) Physiology of Breath-Hold Diving and the Ama of Japan. (United States: National Academy of Sciences - National Research Council): 99–112. ISBN 0-309-01341-0. Retrieved 2013-10-06. 
  3. ^ a b c d Lee, Joo-Young; Lee, Hyo Hyun (August 13, 2014). "Korean Women Divers 'Haenyeo': Bathing Suits and Acclimatization to Cold". Journal of the Human-Environment System. 
  4. ^ a b c Sang-hun, Choe (2014-03-29). "Hardy Divers in Korea Strait, ‘Sea Women’ Are Dwindling". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-11-08. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g "Episode 5: Haenyeo Female Divers" (Video). Youtube. Travel Tours Korea LA18. Retrieved November 8, 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Choe Sang-Hun (29 March 2014). "Hardy Divers in Korea Strait, 'Sea Women' Are Dwindling". New York Times. Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  7. ^ a b Byun, Kyeonghwa; Kang, Eun-Jung (September 2015). "Spatial Transformation and Functions of Bulteok as Space for Haenyeo on Jeju Island, Korea". Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Gwon, Gwi-Sook (2015). "Changing labor processes of women's work: the haenyo of Jeju Island". Korean Studies. 
  9. ^ "The Mermaids of Jeju – Korean Female Divers Haenyeo | Official Korea Tourism Organization". english.visitkorea.or.kr. Retrieved 2015-11-08. 
  10. ^ a b Lee, Joung-Hun; Iwasa, Yoh (July 9, 2011). "Tourists and traditional divers in a common fishing ground". Ecological Economics. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f Hutchens, Jeff (March 25, 2013). "The Diving Women of Jeju (Part 1)" (Video). Youtube. Imagine Your Korea. 
  12. ^ "Haenyeo, Female Divers". Chejudo Tourist Association. 1997. Retrieved 2013-10-06. 
  13. ^ HaenyeoFilm.com
  14. ^ HaenyeoDocumentary.com
  15. ^ IMDB Page

External links[edit]