More than 3,000 mourners came to the rural Japanese village of Kinokawa last weekend to pay their final respects to Tama the super stationmaster of Kishi Station, the last stop on the Wakayama Electric Railway line. Tama was elevated from stray cat to stationmaster in 2007, at a time when the regional rail line was $4.7 million in the red, forcing the layoff of all employees at Kishi Station and leaving the stop unmanned. Reluctant to evict the charming calico cat that hung around the station, the railway’s president announced that he was appointing Tama the super stationmaster of Kishi Station — a position that included free housing in the ticket booth, her own litter box, and an annual salary paid in cat food. For her official duties of meeting and greeting passengers, Tama was outfitted in a tiny custom-made stationmaster cap and cape.
What started out as a playful marketing ploy to raise awareness of the railway’s plight quickly turned into a media sensation with tourists from across Japan and around the world flocking to the village to see Tama at work. Train ridership increased significantly, and Kishi Station itself became a tourist attraction.
The railway’s management capitalized on Tama’s appeal and developed an extensive line of souvenir items bearing a cartoon likeness of Tama, including T-shirts, coffee mugs, stuffed animals, and even a full set of dining room furniture featuring carved silhouettes of cats. In 2009, Wakayama Electric Railway rolled out a train car decorated with cartoon images of Tama, and redesigned the exterior architecture of Kishi station to resemble a cat’s face.
News that Tama had died of heart failure at age 16 (about 80 in human years) plunged fans into mourning. Hundreds journeyed by train to Kishi to pay homage to the feline stationmaster, leaving bouquets of flowers, canned cat food and other cat-appropriate gifts in tribute. The railway’s president spoke at the Shinto funeral service held for Tama inside the station, and gratefully acknowledged Tama’s role in lifting the struggling rail line out of near bankruptcy and contributing some 1.1 billion yen to the local economy during her ten-year tenure. The president told the crowd that he had visited Tama at the pet hospital the day before she died. She opened her eyes and reached out to him with a paw, and when he told her to get well soon so the railway could celebrate her tenth anniversary as stationmaster, Tama responded with a hopeful “meow.”
Over the past decade Wakayama Electric Railway has repeatedly recognized Tama’s enormous contributions to the company and community by moving her up the corporate ranks, from super stationmaster to ultra stationmaster to corporate vice president. Posthumously, the railway awarded Tama the supreme title of “honorable eternal stationmaster” and, consistent with the Shinto tradition of identifying animal deities, Tama was named a “goddess.” Well done, Tama. Rest in peace.