[From November Issue 2012]
Figurines of ceramic cats are often displayed in Japanese stores. These cats sit with one paw, or both paws, raised to their ears. This engimono (talisman or lucky charm) is a “maneki neko” (literally a beckoning cat). The raised paw of the maneki neko resembles a gesture used by Japanese to beckon someone over. That is why the maneki neko is said to bring in customers and good fortune.
Cats used to be kept in Japanese farming villages in order to prevent mice from spoiling the rice harvest. Furthermore, Japanese believe that animals can also become gods and even cats are worshipped in some shrines and temples. It’s thought that these customs are the origins of maneki neko. These days cute cats can become famous and a recent phenomenon is the sight of maneki neko promoting a locality or company.
In Wakayama Prefecture, there is a cat who became a real life maneki neko for the local railway and the local community. The cat, owned by Wakayama Electric Railway, is named Tama, a common name for cats in Japan. Tama is the official station master of Kishi Station on the Kishigawa Line and is an executive board member of Wakayama Electric Railway. She has been given the title “Wakayama de Knight,” so she is now Lady Tama.
Lady Tama was originally taken care of by the owner of a newsstand that stood adjacent to Kishi Station. When the Kishigawa Line changed hands, the owner of the newsstand asked the new president to, “Permit Tama to live in the station house since she will no longer have a place to live.” The moment the president met Tama face to face, he was able to imagine the cat being a station master. Moreover, it felt like Tama was saying to him, “I will be the station master, so please help me.” This is how Tama came to be appointed as the station master of Kishi Station, which had been up until then an unmanned train station.
“Station Master Tama” was a big hit. The mass media covered the story and visitors turned up to see Tama, admiring the way she is so unfazed by humans and her beautiful calico coat. A university professor announced that the results of his research showed that, “Thanks to Tama, Wakayama Prefecture’s economy was boosted by 1.1 billion yen in one year.” Kishigawa Line had been running at a loss and was scheduled for closure, but was rescued by the cat it had rescued.
“Tama is so popular now that not a day goes by without a tourist bus coming to see her,” says YAMAKI Yoshiko, a spokesperson. “Some people have found work after putting Tama merchandise in the entrance to their home and some come back to say thanks because they found love after meeting Tama.”
Since Tama is in her twilight years, sometimes her subordinate Nitama helps out. Nitama has calico markings, just like Tama and was “hired” because of her easygoing character. She usually takes care of customers at Idakiso Station, but on Tama’s day off, she serves as “acting stationmaster.”
There are other instances of cats becoming popular after being used as PR mascots. In order to boost their company profile, “Jalan,” a travel information website operated by Recruit Lifestyle Co., Ltd., adopted a cat named “Nyalan” as their company mascot. Commercials showing Nyalan going on a trip became so popular that DVDs were released. Nyalan has even started his own Twitter account.
Recently, Nyalan has an apprentice and a commercial showing the two of them going on a trip together has been getting a lot of attention. This was the trigger for the number of his Twitter followers to reach over 40,000 in a month, making the Nyalan phenomenon topical as far away as China.
“Nyalan currently has about 60,000 followers on his Twitter account. You can get a sense of just how popular Nyalan is by looking at the number of comments and retweets made by his followers,” says MIYASHITA Maiko, a member of the editorial department. “The first DVD was very well-received, so we are planning a second one.”
Cats from Tashiro Island are contributing towards the restoration effort after the Tohoku Earthquake. Located in Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, about 70 people live on this 3.14 square kilometer island. In rural areas and isolated islands in Japan, aging and depopulation is a big worry, Tashiro Island is no exception. The island’s main industry is fishing, especially net fishing and oyster farming, but with an elderly population of around 80%, the island was in need of revitalization.
To the surprise of the Tashiro islanders, the past few years has brought an increase in the number of camera toting tourists. Because the island has a tradition of respecting cats it has a neko jinja, or cat shrine, where cats are worshipped, and the fishermen have a habit of feeding fish unfit for sale to the cats. As a result, the cat population soared and the media picked up the story of “the island with a larger population of cats than humans,” bringing cat enthusiasts to the island.
There were some residents who disliked the tourists’ lack of manners. But a few saw an opportunity to revitalize the island with the help of these cats. In an effort to encourage tourism, they did things like putting up cat-shaped signs. However, just as they were getting started, the island was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake that hit on March 11, 2011.
The oyster farm was completely destroyed by the tsunami. As the area of devastation was so wide, central and local government was unable to decide where to allocate funds for relief. So the islanders proceeded to collect funds for the restoration themselves. They launched “Nyanko The Project,” an investment fund which pays investors a return in oysters after a few years.
The word “nyanko” means cat. Taking into account the concerns people had about the safety of the cats, they widened the remit of the project to include using some of the money to care for the cats. Investors would also receive cat themed items. In just three months, the project reached its target of 150 million yen. Because they’d collected so much money so fast, they quickly had to stop taking donations.
“Last March, we registered the project as a corporation. After we repair the oyster farms using the financial aid, if all goes well we will be able to ship oysters to our supporters as early as next year. We are also rebuilding the public restroom which was washed away,” says Chairman, OGATA Chikao. PR spokesperson, HAMA Yutaka says, “Cats in Tashiro-jima are thought to be guardian deities that bring fishermen in a good catch. They are like members of the family.”
Meiji era novelist, NATSUME Soseki became famous after writing “I am a Cat,” a book based on his pet cat. It is said that an elderly lady in the neighborhood told the novelist that, “This cat will bring you good fortune.” To the Japanese, cats are a cute and lucky animal.
Text: SAZAKI Ryo