The Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Council’s Special Committee on Women has gathered the first public opinion regarding the Jeju haenyeo [diver] culture. In particular, I spoke on “What is the Jeju women’s culture, and what content would make it a leading world brand.” Bearing that in mind, on Sept. 23 a policy debate was held regarding the divers cultural globalization plan and ways to obtain listing as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Due to the unique “muljil” [substantive customs] of labor and the ecological way of life of the Jeju women divers, and a ‘strong woman’ as a cultural anthropological figure, these women have already received considerable attention in the cultural anthropology field. Of particular note are their collaborative work while retaining an autonomous mentoring system to train juniors, their equitable distribution of ecological methods and collaborative resource management. Of equal note is their active “bulteok” communication among divers, and positive traditions and rites of community, all of which serve to identify them as eco-cultural treasures of modern humankind. This has brought additional reviews and new attention to the diving women as an example of feminist governance.
In reality however, the number of Jeju divers has been shrinking. From a registered 14,143 in 1970, the population has been reduced to approximately one-third with only 5,095 members registered in 2009, and was reduced by another 100 people one year later, to just 4,995 people in 2010.
Clearly, the community is declining. There are only two members in their 30s. Of note, female children now receive a higher education and rural employment is no longer favored, so the subsequent generations are not becoming divers and at stake is the sustainability of this society. To increase this diminishing number of divers is important but even more is the enhancement of their self-esteem, and there is an urgent need to raise awareness of Jeju society and change the approach of policy.
About four years ago, Jeju women divers on Udo were represented on video by Sumbi Pictures, representative Ko Hee-Young, but it was a pity for the Jeju women divers, inadvertently or not, that it had a small showing and only interactively.
If you try to approach divers from Udo and are not their brother or sister, it is difficult to get into the intimate confessions of their lives. An Israeli documentary director, Dahlia, came and learned Korean language, Jeju dialect, and local gestures, and began filming. When leaving Jeju after six months of grueling labor she was sad, as she divided her gosari tablets among the divers, to note that they were more diseased. The documentary was taken to Europe to introduce the Jeju women divers’ lifestyle. In the end, the basics of good work is a deep affection for the destination.
Jeju must notify the world that we’re losing something very significant. No matter how nicely we are setting up agendas and advertising slogans, even if they work in unison like a scene out of a movie... it’s hard not to have a dream. Rather than a mere task, we must aim to go beyond with creativity and passion.
Jeju women divers cultural globalization, a five-year plan, has yielded a successful local festival which Jeju women divers promoted. In particular, the chance for Japan’s Ama women divers and the divers of Jeju to mingle, dance, and know each other’s cultures was very meaningful. A program was also launched to encourage foreigners to systematically promote Jeju women divers, giving them an opportunity to learn the culture well in order to promote it.
To go beyond this, we must not miss the chance to have the divers listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, as a symbol of the truly great minds of mothers contained in the sonorous “sumbisori” [sound made by divers] and to identify to the world what is happening to them.
In this whirlwind of modernization, we must arrange interviews of the 4,995 remaining divers and, in a reverent spirit, learn of the lives of these elderly women and those divers already departed. It is critical that we advertise this to the world. This work with them must begin as early as possible before these experts leave our world, an important task which must be done responsibly.
Lee Sunhwa is a member of the Jeju Provincial Council and chief of the council’s Special Committee on Women.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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