Tama was a female calico cat who gained popularity for being a station master at Kishi Station, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. Born as a stray, she lived close to the station and was regularly fed by passengers and the informal station manager at the time, Toshiko Koyama.
As the first cat to become an executive of a railroad corporation, her story has continued to capture the attention of locals and tourists alike for nearly 20 years - and it’s not hard to see why. This International Cat Day, we’re exploring tales of feline greatness, and Tama’s story is one that certainly lives up to that title.
In 2004, Kishi Station was facing closure due to financial issues. It was during this time that Koyama decided to adopt Tama. Whilst attempts to save the train station were successful, it was soon replaced by the Wakayama Electric Railway resulting in a loss of jobs.
The Wakayama Electric Railway company also decided to evict all stray cats from the railway shelters to make way for new roads leading to stations in the local area. Koyama pleaded with the president of the Wakayama Electric Railway, Mitsunobu Kojima, to allow cats to live inside the station. The president saw Tama as a maneki-neko (a good luck symbol in Japanese culture) and agreed.
A year later in 2005, Tama was officially awarded the title of ‘Station Master’ by railway officials. Her primary role in this job was to greet passengers. Instead of an annual salary, Tama received a year's worth of cat food and a gold name tag clearly stating her name and position. She was also gifted a specially designed station masters hat which took six months to complete. She was issued a summer hat for the warmer weather.
Tama’s story gained publicity and resulted in an increase in passengers at the station. It’s also estimated that Tama contributed 1.1 billion yen to the local economy. Two years later, Tama was recognised as the grand prize winner of the railway’s ‘Top Station Runner Award’ - though the prize had to be modified to a cat toy and a celebratory piece of crab which she was hand-fed by the company president.
Tama was climbing the ranks and the following year received a promotion to the position of ‘Super Station Master’ in a ceremony attended by the mayor, the president of the company, and over 300 guests. Her new position also came with an office - a converted ticket booth fitted with a litter box. Her gold name tag was also amended to show an ‘S’ for ‘super’. During this same year, she was also awarded by the prefectural governor, Yoshinobu Nishizaka, for her contribution to local tourism.
In early 2009, the Wakayama Electric Railway introduced a Tama Tram, decorated with cartoon depictions of Tama and her cat friends.
Within twelve months, she received yet another promotion and now held the role of ‘Operating Officer’ in recognition of her contribution to the expanding passenger and customer base. She was the first cat to become an executive of a railroad corporation. She later managed two other feline assistant station masters: her sister, Chibi and her mother, Miiko. In the same year, the station building at Kishi was rebuilt with a structure to resemble a cat’s face.
In 2011, in her fourth year as station master, and after another ceremony, Tama was promoted to ‘Managing Executive Officer’ making her third in line in management after only the managing director and company president.
Tama continued to excel in her role and two years later celebrated her sixth year as station master. To mark this occasion she was named ‘Honorary President of Wakayama Electric Rail’ for life. As she was getting older, Tama’s work hours were reduced to just three days a week.
On the 5th of January 2012, Tama's official apprentice, another cat ‘Nitama’ (‘second Tama’) was announced as a new staff member. She was born in Okayama City in 2010 and rescued from under a train car before being adopted by Okayama Electric Tramway. Nitama trained at Idakiso Station (five stops away on the same line as Kishi Station) before being chosen as Tama's apprentice.
Tama passed away on the 22nd of June 2015 due to heart failure. After the news of her death, thousands of fans came to pay their respects. Tama was honoured with a Shinto-style funeral at Kishi Station where she was also given one final title, ‘Honorary Eternal Station Master’. She was enshrined at a local Shinto cat shrine as spirit goddess Tama Daimyojin.
After Tama’s funeral, Wakayama Electric Railway president, Mitsunobu Kojima, and other company executives gathered at the Kishi River where Tama was born and selected stones to build her memorial. Tama's name was written in calligraphy by Kojima and then carved by a stonemason. The plaque and a bronze statue of Tama can be found at the ‘Tama Jinja’ Shinto shrine next to the station.
Once the traditional fifty-day mourning period had passed, Tama was succeeded by her deputy, Nitama. Nitama's first official duty was to be taken to her predecessor's shrine to pay her respects.
In February 2016, Tama became the first inductee into the Wakayama Hall of Fame. A bronze plaque showing the story of her life was unveiled on the second floor of the Wakayama Prefectural Library.
After Tama's enshrinement in August 2015, Nitama was taken to the shrine to pay her respects and then formally installed as the new station master.
Sun-tama-tama (‘third Tama’) was a calico cat sent for training in Okayama. She was considered as a candidate for Tama's successor, but the Okayama Public Relations representative who had been caring for her refused to give her up, stating, ‘I will not let go of this child, she will stay in Okayama.’
As of September 2018, Sun-tama-tama is working as the station master in Naka-ku, Okayama and appears occasionally on Tama's Twitter account.
On the 10th anniversary of Tama's instalment as station master, Yontama (‘fourth Tama’), an eight-month-old calico, was introduced as Nitama's junior and the new station master of Idakiso Station on Nitama’s days off.
Every year on the anniversary of Tama's death, her successors Nitama and Yontama are carried to her shrine. Here, offerings are presented by the company president on their behalf.
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