Guest writer: Urusai_Uni#0007
Around the world, many people have a fascination with cats, Japan especially. From Shinto gods to cat cafes, it’s clear that Japan adores the fuzzy felines. Everywhere you go, you’ll see some sort of depiction of a cat, from the traditional maneki nekos to mascots like Hello Kitty. The star of this week’s article, Tama the cat, was the mascot of the Wakayama Electric Railway and held a special place in Japan, and the world’s, heart.
From Stray to Stationmaster
The Kishi station is the final stop on the Kishigawa Line, the only railway line run by the Wakayama Electric Railway Company. Near the station lived a group of stray cats who were often fed by passengers and a man named Toshiko Koyama, the informal station manager until 2006. One of these cats was a calico named Tama who was born in 1999.
The Kishigawa Line was facing financial hardship and low rider numbers, which almost resulted in its closure in 2004. However, the line stayed open a bit longer due to public outcry. 2004 was the same year Koyama officially adopted Tama. As part of cost reduction measures, the Wakayama Electric Railway destaffed all stations in 2006, and officially appointed Koyama as station manager.
Tama, who was already a staple of the station, was officially appointed as stationmaster at the beginning of 2007. Her main duty was to greet passengers and she was paid in cat food! The company had a special golden name tag commissioned for Tama, as well as two custom stationmaster hats, one for winter and one for summer!
Within her first year as stationmaster, Tama helped bring passenger numbers up by 17% and revenue up by 10%. Fans flocked from across Japan to see her, and all sorts of Tama related goods were available for purchase. Tama even won the railways “Top Station Runner” award!
2008 brought another promotion for Tama, this time to Super Stationmaster. Her name tag was updated to a blue and gold design with a large “S” on it. She also received an “office”, a converted ticket booth with a bed and litter box, where she could greet her passengers from. Later that year, Tama was knighted by the prefecture governor for promoting local tourism. One study estimated that Tama’s popularity helped bring over a billion yen into the local economy while she was stationmaster!
The Wakayama Electric Railway later soon released the “Tama Densha” a specialty train themed after Tama! The Kishi station where she served was also updated to resemble a cat! Tama also received several promotions over the years, becoming the “Operating Officer” in 2010, the “Managing Executive Officer” in 2011 (This made her third in line in the company after the president and the managing director!) and the Honorary President of Wakayama Electric Railway for Life in 2013, which was her sixth year as a stationmaster.
In 2015 on June 23rd at the age of 16, Tama passed away. She was enshrined in a nearby Shinto shrine for cats as a spirit goddess. Thousands of people came to Kishi station to pay their respects and Tama was awarded the title of “Honorary Eternal Stationmaster”. Next to Kishi station is a shrine dedicated to her, with a carved plaque of Tama’s name written by the railway president.
After a 50 day mourning period, a Shinto tradition, Tama was succeeded by her apprentice Niitama, who trained at another station on the Kishigawa Line. She was officially appointed as the Kishi Station Stationmaster in August of 2015 after paying her respects to her master, Tama.
Another cat named Sun-tama-tama was also considered as a Tama’s successor. She was sent to Okayama for training but the person caring for her refused to give her up. She currently works as a stationmaster in Naka-ku, Okayama. Yontama is the most recent addition to the Tama line. She was officially introduced as Niitama’s subordinate in 2017 and is currently in training.
While Tama is no longer around, her legacy still lives on. She helped to breathe new life into a dying railway line, some people’s only way of traveling for work or school. If you love cats and are in the area, take a ride on the Kishigawa Line to the final stop, Stationmaster Niitama will be waiting to greet youu!