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Monday, June 02, 2008

Ridership Soars as Tama Takes Over as a Stationmaster on Money-Losing Commuter Train Line

"She never complains, even though passengers touch her all over the place. She is an amazing cat. She has patience and charisma. She is the perfect stationmaster."
-- Yoshiko Yamaki

Wakayama Electric Railway's Kishigawa Line in western Japan was up the spout. It was hemorrhaging red ink at the rate of $5 million a year and ridership had plummeted to as few as five-thousand patrons a day and 1.9 million per annum.

Conditions had gotten so bad in fact that by April of 2006 management had been forced to give the sack to conductors and stationmasters alike. The trains still had engineers of course but the ten stations along the nine-mile route from Wakayama to Kinokawa had been reduced to being little more than stops along the way.

All of that is now a thing of the past as ridership has rebounded by ten per cent to 2.1 million annual patrons. Most astonishing of all, this stunning reversal of fortunes is due to the work of a cat.

In January of 2007, railroad officials hit upon the brilliant idea of tapping a nine-year-old depot loiterer named Tama as head of operations for Kishi Station in Kinokawa. Once news of the tortoiseshell's appointment spread people from all over Japan started flocking to the station in droves just to see her and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

A hard worker, Tama puts in a regular nine to five grind six days a week greeting commuters and posing for photographs with tourists. She also has the patience of Job in that she must contend with the constant attentions of her adoring fans.

"She never complains, even though passengers touch her all over the place," Yoshiko Yamaki, spokesman for Wakayama, told the China Daily on May 26th. (See "Cat as Station Chief Brings Passengers Back.") "She is an amazing cat. She has patience and charisma. She is the perfect stationmaster."

Perhaps just as important, her role in rescuing the troubled commuter line has not gone unappreciated by the railroad's brass. For instance, in December of last year she was given a hefty bonus, paid in cat food, and in January she was promoted to the position of Super Stationmaster.

Along with the promotion came a medallion inscribed with her new title which she now proudly wears along with her stationmaster's cap. (See photos above and below.)

"She now holds the fifth highest position in the company," Yamaki added. She also has the dubious distinction of being the only female in management.

With the new title and bonus also came an office in the form of a renovated ticket booth. As an indication of how serious the Japanese feel about her, the ribbon-cutting ceremony was attended by no less than the mayor of Kinokawa as well as the president of Wakayama Electric.

Far more than ceremonial, the office will allow her to temporarily escape the clutches of her admirers and to enjoy some much needed privacy. "She declines to relieve herself when passengers are looking," Yamaki explained. "We set the toilet where passengers can't see."

That was certainly a long overdue move in that it would be hardly fitting for a Super Stationmaster to answer nature's call in full view of the public. Besides, cats are a good deal more circumspect in their excretory habits than some people.

On Manhattan's crowded Fifth Avenue, par exemple, it is not uncommon to see both men and women drop their drawers and let fly even during the height of rush hour. No self-respecting cat would ever be caught committing such an indiscretion.

Tama has become so famous that she has an entry in Wikipedia and a volume of photographs entitled Diary of Tama, the Stationmaster is now in bookstores. She also is scheduled to appear in a documentary by French director Myriam Tonelotto about famous cats from around the world. As one would expect, postcards, erasers, notebooks, and pens bearing her likeness are selling like hotcakes.

She also is living proof that the feline species has more than its share of Horatio Alger success stories. Her origins were rather humble in that she is the offspring of a stray that was brought to Kishi Station by an unidentified cleaner.

She is more or less owned by Toshiko Koyama who operates a grocery store alongside the station. In fact, it was he who was originally appointed to look after the station when Wakayama sacked its stationmasters.

He, however, treats her like a second-class citizen in that he forces her to live in a shed on his property. That may be about to change in that the grocery store is reportedly slated for demolition.

The loss of her home along with the fact that she is all alone at Kishi except for her feline subalterns, eight-year-old Chibi and ten-year-old Miko, raises serious concerns about her safety. There is nothing in press reports to suggest that there is anything or anyone to prevent someone from walking in off the street and either stealing or bodily injuring her.

On the one hand, it seems absurd that officials at Wakayama would leave a cat as valuable as Tama to fend for herself but then again if they are too cheap to hire even a ticket-seller it is doubtful that they would pay someone to protect a cat.

"Tama is the only stationmaster as we have to reduce personnel costs," Yamaki told China Daily. "You could ask for the cat's help, but she is actually bringing luck to us."

The Japanese, like many people, believe that cats, especially waifs, bring good luck. Unless precautions are taken, however, both Tama and the railroad's luck could disappear in the twinkling of an eye.

For instance, about this time a year ago some intrepid thief stole a cat from the Philadelphia Police. (See Cat Defender post of May 29, 2007 entitled "Corporal Cuffs, Beloved Station House Mascot, Is Abducted Right Under Cops' Noses.")

Finally, Tama's meteoric rise through the ranks just goes to show what cats are capable of when they are given the opportunity. Besides, their breeding, good looks, sedate personalities, congeniality, and natural intelligence make them obvious choices for positions within senior management. No one in his or her right mind seriously expects any of these exquisite creatures to waste their considerable talents toiling away at menial pursuits.

Because of extreme prejudice, however, few of them are seldom ever to even get their tiny paws inside the door, front or back. A handful of jobs nonetheless are starting to open up for them in the railroad business.

Last September, PC Tizer was hired by the British Transportation Police as head mouser at King's Cross in London. (See Cat Defender post of November 23, 2007 entitled "Tizer Lands a Job Working for the Police After Ending Up at a Shelter Following the Death of His Previous Owner.")

The thirteen-year-old cat has proven to be so proficient at his job and such a favorite with the officers that he already has been promoted to the rank of constable. Winding up on death row following the demise of his longtime owner was a terrible blow but things are definitely beginning to look up for him.

Photos: China Daily and Wikipedia.