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Believe it or not, there are three animal stationmasters on Japan's rail network! The best-known one, who started the trend, is Tama, born in April 1999, and she is 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 the employees of nearby local businesses.
At Kishi the neighbourhood grocer, Toshiko Kayama, was appointed, and it so happened that he 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. She took up her duties as stationmaster in 2007, with the primary duty of greeting passengers; before long a former ticket window was converted so she now has her own office, where she can relax and enjoy 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 has a staff of two feline assistants: Chibi, born in May 2000, and a ginger tabby called Miko, born in October 1998.
Why all the fuss? Well, since Tama took up her post the number of passengers riding the company's trains has increased significantly, and the publicity she has generated has contributed a large sum, estimated at over a billion yen, to the local economy. Naturally, her food is paid for by the rail company.
Now tourists travel specially to see Tama, to the extent that a human employee, Mr Nishiyama, has been 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 has featured in a TV documentary in both French and German that aired in Europe in April 2009 and of course she has had plenty of Japanese media coverage. She sometimes attends local events as a 'celebrity'.
Tama spends nights in her master's shop, and arrives at the station in time to greet morning rush-hour passengers. She has a special little stationmaster's hat for official duties; she spends much of her time (when she's not sleeping!) posing for photos. There is now a shop at the station selling Tama souvenirs for visitors.
The next development was that the rail company brought into service a special 'Tama train', known as Tama Densha, which began operation in spring 2009. It is painted all over outside with Tama cartoons, and inside are photo booths where special Tama-themed pictures can 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 is 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 a Corporate Executive of the railway; not surprisingly, she was the first cat in the world to hold such a position! Some 100 fans attended her appointment ceremony. However, despite the promotion she continues to carry out her duties as stationmaster. There are some short videos featuring Tama doing her stuff at Japan Probe.
The story does 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': see a clip, which also has a brief view of Tama sleeping in her office. There's no spoken commentary, although the titles are in Japanese.
Following Tama's great success, two other rural Japanese stations have appointed animals to try to emulate her. Maron is a Yorkshire terrier, stationmaster at Okunakayama-Kougen Station on the Iwate Ginga line in the north of the country. He has a full and very smart uniform; like Tama he's had a photo book published, and has an official web page.
Then there's another cat, Bus, who works at Aizu Ashinomaki Onsen station on the Aizu railway in Fukushima, central Japan. Bus is a stray who was taken in by rail workers about 9 years ago; now he spends much of his time sleeping in the station waiting room! Although his fame has not spread as far as Tama's, the railway reports an increase in passenger numbers since appointing him. Bus keychains can be purchased, and he has an official blog.
Photos of Maron and Bus can also be seen at Japan Probe.
Thanks to Tama fan Luis Abelardo for bringing to our attention more recent developments in the feline stationmaster's career.
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.
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