Tama the cat has been a part of the Japanese workforce for the past seven years. She works as a station master at Kishi station, a remote railway stop in Kinokawa City, Wakayama, Western Japan. Of course, ‘works’ isn’t exactly the right word for what she does there. Her job mostly involves sitting around, posing for pictures and looking rather stern (which reminds me of my ex-boss, actually). But Tama has been rewarded handsomely for her efforts – she has a large window office, a hat with a gold lining, a badge, and her annual compensation is one years’ worth of cat food.
Station Master Tama is special because she attracts tens of thousands of tourists each year. Her presence at Kishi station has helped revitalize tourism in a rural area that was struggling to stay afloat. At one point, the train line that passed through Kishi station saw a 15 percent annual decline in ridership. But when Tama stepped into the role of station master, in 2007, there was a sudden 10 percent jump in the first year.
Tourists continue to pour in from Hong Kong and Taiwan; Wakayama Electric Railway (the company that runs the line) said that at least 20,000 tourists visit the small town annually. The estimated combined revenue from the ticket sales and memorabilia like photobooks and commercial appearances has bumped up the local economy by a whopping 1.1 billion yen ($10.8 million). The company operates just the one line, with about 2.2 million passengers annually.
In case you’re wondering, there are no other human employees at Kishi station. Just like several other rural rail operations in Japan, Wakayama Railway does not employ any staff at the majority of its stations. Which is why people adore 15-year-old Tama for what she does – watch over the station all by herself. Well, only four days a week, that is. The rest of the days are filled in by junior station master Nitama, a three-year-old calico. But no one seems to mind the substitution; they stop to take pictures with whichever cat is on duty for the day.
Ka Wing Wu is a 22-year-old college student who traveled all the way from Hong Kong with his friend to see Tama at work. “The idea is clever, as the cat has become the symbol of the railway, attracting many tourists,” he said.
“The cat is so cute,” said another lady visitor.
The tale of Station Master Tama actually began in 2003, when a small cat shelter in Kinokawa was asked to vacate the premises to make way for new roads leading to train stations. In 2006, just after the opening ceremony of the new station, an old woman who cared for the cats went up to Mitsunobu Kojima, the railway company’s president. She pleaded with him to let the cats, who were facing eviction, to continue to live inside the station.
We’re not sure what happened to the other cats but the moment Kojima saw Tama, he just knew the cat was destined for the position of station master. Otherwise a dog person, Kojima instantly warmed up to the furry, fat feline. “The moment I met eyes with Tama, I was immediately struck with an image of Tama as station master,” he said. His vision for Tama was a ‘maneki-neko’ (a ‘beckoning cat’), a Japanese lucky charm that would bring good business.
Tama has proved to be all that and more, which is why she is always on the fast track for a promotion. She was made Super Station Master in 2008, and also received a special award from the prefectural governor that year. According to Maki Miyashita, an employee of the company, “Tama has stimulated the region and I’m happy to see many tourists leaving in smiles after watching her. In 2013, Tama was named deputy president of the railway company. There’s even a ‘tama train’ that runs in her honor. I do hope all the success hasn’t gone to her head.