A view from Dave Trott: What's in the kitty?

Photo credit: Julian Hanford
Photo credit: Julian Hanford

In Japan, the Kishigawa branch line was losing $4.7 million a year.

So the Wakayama Electric Railway Company decided to close it down. 

But there was an outcry from the local people.

Many of those along the 14km route depended on public transport.

So the railway company agreed to compromise.

They’d keep the line open but they couldn’t staff the stations.

Local volunteers would have to do that themselves, unpaid.

The volunteer looking after Kishi station was Toshiko Koyama.

He thought, as he wasn’t getting paid, he could have a bit of fun. 

He had nothing to lose.

There was a stray tortoiseshell cat that hung around Kishi station.

The locals liked to stroke it: the Japanese think cats are lucky.

Koyama decided he could charge the cat’s food to expenses if he gave it an official role.

He thought it would be amusing to make the cat the stationmaster.

And Koyama’s joke went down well.

The cat’s name was Tama. 

As the stationmaster, she was politely addressed as Tama Chan.  

He had an official hat made for her to wear in photographs.

Her mother, Miiko, and her sister, Chibi, were made her assistants.

She was given an office with a bed and a cat litter box.

And the joke took on a life of its own.

People travelled to Kishi to see Tama Chan the stationmaster cat.

Within the first year, traffic on the branch line was up 10 per cent.

Tama Chan featured on the cable channel Animal Planet in the US. 

Film companies came from Japan, Italy, Germany and France to make documentaries.

More than two million visitors a year now come to Kishi, just to see the stationmaster cat. 

The Wakayama Electric Railway wasn’t slow to see the opportunity.

They had to lay on more trains.

They painted the trains with cat whiskers on the front.

They even got the designer Eiji Mitooka to put two large windows and two sloping roofs on the station.

So it looked like a cat’s eyes and ears. 

And, all over Japan, children pestered their parents to take them to Kishi station to see Tama Chan.

Local businesses sold "Tama Chan" T-shirts, cushions, mugs, books, stuffed toys, bags, balloons, statuettes, cupcakes, fans, posters.

Tama Chan is responsible for selling around ¥1 billion ($11 million) of merchandise a year. 

Tama Chan was even put on the board of the railway company.

But, this year, Tama Chan died.

She was 80 years old in cat years.

So a Shinto cat shrine was built and she was made "Honourable Eternal Stationmaster".

But the tourists still flock to Kishi station.

Because there is now a new stationmaster cat.

Her name is Nitama, meaning "Second Tama".

The phenomenon of the stationmaster cat wasn’t logically arrived at.

It wasn’t the product of a marketing department.

It was the product of someone with nothing to lose, saying: "Let’s have a bit of fun."

Consequently, it makes no sense, and yet it works brilliantly.

Because that’s how people are. 

They don’t make sense, but they do love fun.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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