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Believe it or not, there are more than half a dozen animal stationmasters on Japan's rail network! The best-known, who started the trend, was Tama, born in April 1999, and she was in charge at Kishi, a station in Kinokawa in the south of Japan on the Kishigawa line run by the Wakayama Electric Railway Company. In April 2006 the company needed to save money and cut costs, so decided to convert all its stations to unmanned ones, although a human stationmaster was chosen for each from among employees of nearby local businesses.
At Kishi the neighbourhood grocer, Toshiko Kayama, was appointed, and it so happened that she had adopted some stray cats and was in the habit of feeding them at the station. One of these cats was Tama, a calico (tortoiseshell and white) female, with markings on her front legs which, when she sits with them together, form a heart shape. She took up her duties as stationmaster in early 2007, with the primary duty of greeting passengers. Before long a former ticket window was converted so she had her own office, where she relaxed and enjoyed a basket to rest in, with ventilation and a litter tray provided. She was later promoted to honorary division chief and 'super stationmaster' at a ceremony in January 2008 attended by the press and the town mayor and had a staff of two feline assistants (right): Miiko, a ginger tabby born in October 1998, and ginger-and-white Chibi, born in May 2000. We believe that Miiko, who died in July 2009, was Tama's mother; Chibi was possibly Tama's half-sister.
Why all the fuss? Well, after Tama took up her post the number of passengers riding the company's trains increased significantly, and the publicity she generated contributed a large sum to the local economy, estimated at over a billion yen in 2007 alone (at the time about £6 million, or more than 10 million US dollars). Naturally, her food was paid for by the rail company.
Tourists travelled specially to see Tama, to the extent that a human employee, Mr Nishiyama, was taken on as assistant to keep an eye on her and to guide visitors to her. She gained national coverage when a book of photos of her was published. She featured in a TV documentary in both French and German that aired in Europe in April 2009 and of course she had plenty of Japanese media coverage. She sometimes attended local events as a 'celebrity'.
Tama spent nights in her mistress's shop, and arrived at the station in time to greet morning rush-hour passengers. She had a special little stationmaster's hat for official duties, and spent much of her time (when she wasn't sleeping!) posing for photos. A shop at the station sold Tama souvenirs for visitors.
The next development was that the rail company brought into service a special 'Tama train', the Tama Densha (right, but see also full-sized here), which began operation in spring 2009. It was painted all over outside with Tama cartoons, and inside were photo booths where special Tama-themed pictures could be printed. Over 10 million yen was donated for the train's renovation. On the opening day Tama herself rode in the driver's cab for the eight or so kilometres (5 miles) from Idakiso station to Wakayama station. There's a video shot during a journey on the train at YouTube.
Tama's next step up the ladder occurred in January 2010, when she was appointed Operating Officer of the railway; not surprisingly, she was the first cat in the world to hold such an executive position! Some 100 fans attended her appointment ceremony. However, despite the promotion she continued to carry out her duties as stationmaster.
The story did not even stop there. In order to make the Kishikawa station even more appealing to tourists, the company decided to give it a Tama-themed makeover in 2010. The former station building was demolished, and rebuilt with roof features made to resemble a cat's ears, eyes and nose. See a 'before and after' clip, which also has a brief view of Tama (and Chibi) sleeping in her office. There's no spoken commentary, although the titles are in Japanese.
In January 2012 Tama gained an understudy when the station at Idakiso appointed Nitama (roughly translated, 'Tama the second') as its stationmaster. Still quite young, we think about two years old at the time, she was another calico but longer-haired than Tama. She had her own 'office' at Idakiso, rather more basic than Tama's at Kishi, where she could be seen by the public on her working days; but she also stood in at Kishi station on Tama's days off. Initially it appears to have been only on Sundays, but we believe that later on (by 2013) Tama was taking more rest days and Nitama was there for at least two days a week.
Tama celebrated her 16th birthday in April 2015, but sadly she died on 22 June at a local animal hospital from acute heart failure. The governor of Wakayama paid tribute to her, saying she had been a 'tourism superstar' and that he was filled with deep sorrow and appreciation. A Shinto-style funeral was held at Kishi station on 28 June. Thousands of fans came to pay their respects, and Tama was given the posthumous title 'Honorary Eternal Stationmaster'. She was enshrined at a nearby Shinto cat shrine, while a plaque and a statue of her were set up near the station. The Tama train was redecorated for mourning.
After the traditional 50-day mourning period, Tama was succeeded as stationmaster by her deputy Nitama, whose first official duty was to be conveyed to her predecessor's shrine to pay her respects. Since taking over at Kishikawa, Nitama has her own feline assistant at Idakiso station Yontama ('Tama Four').
In 2017 Tama was featured as a Google Doodle in Japan and several other countries, marking what would have been her 18th birthday.
Other stationmasters in Japan
Following Tama's great success, two other rural Japanese stations appointed animals to try to emulate her, one choosing a cat (see Bus, below) and the other a dog: Maron was a Yorkshire terrier, stationmaster at Okunakayama-Kougen Station on the Iwate Ginga line in the north of the country. He had a full and very smart uniform; like Tama he had a photo book published, and an official web page. More stations then took up the trend. Another dog, Wasao, an Akita who was already well known in the northern prefecture of Aomori, was appointed to the special position of 'tourism stationmaster' at Ajigasawa station. There were also apparently three stationmaster goats, a pair of monkeys, possibly a rabbit, and one railway company even made a penguin an honorary stationmaster, though only for a day.
Returning to cats, Bus (right), worked at Aizu Ashinomaki Onsen station on the Aizu railway in Fukushima, central Japan; he was a stray who was taken in by rail workers in about 1999. Thought to be a Chinchilla hybrid, Bus was appointed as stationmaster in 2008 and spent much of his time sleeping in the station waiting room. Although his fame did not spread as far as Tama's, the railway reported an increase in passenger numbers after appointing him. Bus keychains could be purchased, and he had an official blog.
Then we heard of still another feline stationmaster: Kotora (left), an 11-year-old (in 2013) tabby-and-white cat who presided over Kichigahara station, and he also made 'official' visits to two other stations in the same prefecture. In 2009 some PR people arranged a meeting between Kotora and Bus (presumably so they could compare notes and discuss business) but unfortunately it didn't go very well, as they hated each other on sight! (right)
It should be made clear that these animals don't simply laze around the station or sleep on the job all day; they are put to work posing for pictures, entertaining their fans, giving TV and press interviews and attending local events as VIPs. They're treated like real employees; sometimes they even have to go to meetings!
Thanks to Tama fan Luis Abelardo for bringing to our attention some of the developments in Tama's career.
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