Local Hero

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Last week, over 3000 mourners said goodbye to a local hero in Wakayama, a beloved friend who saved a local railway and transformed a forgotten town into a popular tourist destination.  On June 22, Tama, the stationmaster cat of Kishi Station, died at the age of 16 (about 80 in human years.).  Mourners joined the ceremony from all over Japan, as they said goodbye to a little cat that saved a railroad.  In one of several portraits decorating the altar, Tama posed in a stationmaster's hat and a dark blue cape. Sake, as well as watermelon, apples, cabbage and other fruits and vegetables were presented to the cat. A stand outside the station was heaped with bouquets, canned tuna and other gifts left by thousands of Tama fans who came to pray from around the country.

Tama was born on April 29, 1999, at Kishi Station. Her mother was a tabby cat that lived at the station on the Kishigawa Line, which at the time was operated by Nankai Electric Railway Co.  Before she took over her duties from the last human station master in 2006, the nine-mile-long, heavily indebted Kishigawa line line was losing 500m yen ($4m) a year and at one point only 5,000 passengers a day were using it.  Finally, in 2006, the company got rid of the human stationmaster at Kishi Station - leaving Tama, the stray cat.  Tampa took her duties to heart, and loyally kept watch over the station, much to the delight of locals.  

Tama was named honorary stationmaster in 2007, and could always be found in her custom-made stationmaster's hat, waiting at the ticket gate to welcome passengers.  Tourists started pouring into the area to see her wearing the uniform cap. She inspired T-shirts and stuffed animals. She even got her cartoon-likeness on a train.  In spring 2009, the Wakayama Electric Railway introduced a new "Tama Densha" (たま電車 Tama train) train on the line which was customized with cartoon depictions of Tama. In August 2010, the station building at Kishi was rebuilt with a new structure resembling a cat's face. Both the "Tama Densha" refurbishment and station rebuilding projects were overseen by industrial designer Eiji Mitooka.

She was such a hit with visitors, estimates indicate that she pumped at least 1.1 billion yen ($9 million) into the local economy in just her first year on the job.  In her first year on the job passenger numbers rose 10% to 2.1m.  The railway continued to promote her during her term - literally. After rising to the position of ultra-stationmaster, she went on to become a vice president of the rail firm in 2013. On Sunday, she was given a new title: honourable eternal stationmaster.

Wakayama Governor Yoshinobu Nisaka was among those in attendance for Tama’s funeral, which was held by Wakayama Electric Railway Co. Throngs of Tama fans and media reporters from home and abroad were also present.  He said Tama will be remembered as “the permanent honorary stationmaster” and asked Tama to “continue to protect local public transportation around the world, including Wakayama Electric Railway, as ‘Tama-daimyojin.’ ”  The railway is considering building a statue in her honor.  

Her successor is fellow calico cat Nitama, who until now has been an apprentice stationmaster.


The Asahi Shinbun


The Japan Times

The Washington Post

Deutsche Well