When it comes to the business of marketing cuteness, cats have cornered the market in Japan and abroad. As you travel around Japan you’ll be able to find cat cafés in all the major cities, and most of the smaller ones too. You might also have heard of Aoshima, a small fishing village which earned the nickname ‘Cat Island’ thanks to its huge population of feline residents. You won’t be able to avoid famous manga and anime cats like What’s Michael, Doraemon or even Pokemon’s Meowth.
All these examples fall under the curious new term ‘Nekonomics’, a portmanteau of neko, the Japanese for cat, and economics. ‘Nekonomics’ refers to the positive influence a feline mascot can have on your company. The concept really came into the public eye with ‘Tama’, a much loved stray cat turned railway employee.
Back in 2004 when the Kishigawa rail line in the prefecture of Wakayama was starting to struggle with rising costs, the Wakayama Electric Railway cut back costs by removing the current station masters on the Kishigawa Line. Instead they invited local people to become Station Masters in their stead as a last-ditch effort to keep the railway moving. Already a popular figure with local passengers, stray cat Tama suddenly found herself promoted to Station Master, and Kishi Station received a huge boost in tourism.
Although Tama eventually retired, and sadly passed away a few years ago, her influence was the pride of many Kishigawa Line railway workers, with her image plastered across the media and also acting as the mascot for a special train. She also received an impressive amount of expensive seafood from her fans and a multitude of promotions, from station master to super station master and ultra station master, until she was eventually outranked only by the company president and managing director.
Although the ‘Cat Boom’ (ねこブーム) may have passed its peak, the community of animal station masters is still active today and hard at work in Japan’s railway network. Of course, trailblazing station master Tama has a long line of successors. Tama’s duties have been taken over by another ex-stray cat named Nitama (literally Tama Two), but other candidates were available, including Sun Tama-Tama and Yontama, who are doing their best to keep their own areas of the transport system on track.
Nowadays there’s a network of cats contributing to Japan’s rail economy, keeping active and connecting with each other across the Twittersphere as they fulfil their roles as tourism ambassadors. Over in Yamagata we have Chocolat, a three year old cat who promises to learn from his more experienced colleagues and become the best Station Master he can. Look down to Ibaraki prefecture and you’ll find station cat Osamu on the Minato line, currently providing fortune readings through twitter (I got a prompt response and a promise of very good luck!).
Personally, cute as cats are, I find them a little smug and would probably feel much safer in Ōdate Station Akita, where Akita dogs Shodai and Omochi help run things as honorary station masters.
There has to be a mention of station master Mochii as well, a small rabbit handling business at Miyauchi Station Nanyō who occasionally wears a tiny station master hat.
Each of the Station Masters across Japan are available for visits on slightly different schedules, and while now might not be the best time for a national train journey it’s never a bad time to start following a few of them online!