As regular readers know, I was in Japan all last week, and reported on green car developments there. But what I didn’t mention was that I saw only one cat during my entire time in the country. The feline, which looked quite elderly, was in the doorway of an open-air market in Kyoto. And it was holding court there.
Almost every person who passed (particularly the older ones) stopped in their tracks, did a comic double-take, and then bent down to give kitty a pat, whispering sweet endearments all the while. The cat permitted most of this as his due, but occasionally nipped at the hand when the person got too familiar. I watched this for half an hour, and the scene never changed.
I thought no more about cats until I was leaving Japan and my fellow visitor Lori from Earth911.com and I saw, in a gift shop, a colorful notebook emblazoned with an unbearably cute photo of a calico cat wearing a train hat at a jaunty angle. “Super Station Master Tama,” it said. I bought it, of course. On the way onto the plane, the Delta lady, who was Japanese, grabbed my bag (which was itself emblazoned with Tama’s picture). “Tama!” she said, very excited.
I had no idea who Tama is, but I was soon wised up. Tama is not only a famous cat in a country that considers them good luck, but she also loves public transportation. Tama — an elder statesman at 10 years old — lives in Wakayama Prefecture, and is indeed the station manager of the Wakayama Electric Railway, paid in cat food (but the job comes with a hat and badge). She has had station manager status since 2007, awarded because of her singular role in saving the train from extinction.
It seems that back in 1996, the railway was losing $4.7 million a year, and the Kishagawa station where Tama and a bunch of other stray cats received regular feedings was all but shut down. Neighborhood grocer Toshiko Koyama, who was informally managing the station, named Tama station manager in 2007, and the railway went along.
With Tama on the job greeting cat-loving passengers, ridership started to grow — it increased 17 percent the month after the appointment, and was up 10 percent for the first year, with 2.1 million riders. Estimated revenue for the local economy from Tama being on the job: 1.1 billion yen. As Wired put it, Tama was responsible for “one of the greatest business turnarounds since Steve Jobs saved Apple.”
Tama, elevated to “super station master” in 2008, now has assistants, an office (with litter box, which she uses discreetly) and a French documentary filmmaker following her every move. She works 9 to 5 and takes Sundays off. There is a book, "Diary of Tama, the Station Master,” that was a huge hit in Japan, and (obviously) notebooks and other paraphernalia.
There is a special Tama train, festooned with more cat images and Tama cartoons than you could possibly imagine. Here's video proof:
This story is not unprecedented. There are non-native rock apes on the island of Gibraltar that have military status, a salary (paid in rations) and a huge status as tourist attractions. I’ve seen them preening on a sunny day.
In Simon’s Town, South Africa, near Capetown, I came across the story of a Great Dane, Able Seaman Just Nuisance, who regularly rode the trains and was enrolled in the British Royal Navy from 1939 to 1944 as “the only dog in history to receive a military rank.” I bought his biography. (I’m a sucker for this stuff.) Here's a bizarre talking dog video about Just Nuisance:
And don’t forget Dewey, the Library Cat. He played a role not unlike Tama’s, not to mention selling millions of books. (I read that one, too. Like I said ... a sucker for this stuff.)
I say we enlist Tama-type station masters at every Amtrak station in the U.S. That way, what de-funding Congressman would dare to slash railway appropriations? What, and put railway cats out of a job?