Train stations in Japan have an unlikely ability to spark emotion. Thursday 5 January saw the Wakayama Electric Railway mark the 10th anniversary of the appointment of its cat ‘stationmaster’, Tama. The cat, which presided over the struggling Kishi station in western Japan, died of heart failure in 2015 and was accorded goddess status by officials.
As a brand ambassador, Tama’s power was considerable. The animal became a major draw for both domestic and international tourists and saved the Kishigawa line from closure. Over the course of its 'career', Tama is said to have contributed more than 1 billion yen to the local economy. At its funeral (yes, it had a Shinto funeral), 3,000 people paid respects.
Tama was not a one-off, however: its successor, Nitama, was sworn in in 2015, and yesterday’s anniversary celebrated the appointment of Yontama as ‘deputy’.
As with any brand ambassador though, personality matters. Inspired by Tama’s success, a number of stations around Japan have since jumped on the bandwagon and hired furry stationmasters to lift their image. But none has managed to stand out to the same extent. For many, Tama will remain the one and only true stationmaster.
That’s not to say stations can’t serve as platforms to help revitalise rural areas, or even brands. The key factor is originality. In 2015, Mesocare-Plus, a shampoo brand, saw a sales increase after buying the naming rights to a station in Chiba prefecture. The stop on the Choshi Electric Railway became ‘Hair Growth Station’, a play on its original name. The simple change led to a significant rise in both passengers and visitors to the town.
In an interview, Hiroto Sekiguchi, a copywriter at Oricom who worked on the initiative, suggested that because Japan has many railway enthusiasts, such outlandish ideas can have a much bigger impact than they would be likely to have elsewhere.