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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, is Tama, born in April 1999, and she's 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 is 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 is paid for by the rail company.
Now tourists travel 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's had plenty of Japanese media coverage. She sometimes attends local events as a 'celebrity'.
Tama spends nights in her mistress'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, and spends much of her time (when she's not sleeping!) posing for photos. A shop at the station sells 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's 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'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 continues to carry out her duties as stationmaster. There are some short videos featuring Tama doing her stuff at Japan Probe (in Japanese, but the page summarises the content in English text).
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 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 is another calico but longer-haired than Tama. She has her own 'office' at Idakiso, rather more basic than Tama's at Kishi, where she can be seen by the public on her working days; but she also stands in at Kishi station on Tama's days off. Initially it appears to have been only on Sundays, but we believe that by now (2013) Tama is taking more rest days and Nitama is there for at least two days a week.
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 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. 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 are 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), works 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 spends much of his time sleeping in the station waiting room. Although his fame has not spread as far as Tama's, the railway reported an increase in passenger numbers after 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.
Now we've heard of still another feline stationmaster: Kotora (left), an 11-year-old (in 2013) tabby-and-white cat who presides over Kichigahara station, and he has 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!
• Super Station Master Tama at Facebook, although as of mid-2013 there have been no new posts (except from followers) for more than three years she's obviously been too busy!
Thanks to Tama fan Luis Abelardo for bringing to our attention some of the developments in Tama'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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