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Marco Werman: Shinto priests sounds like they may be donning santa suits one day and then presiding over a feline funeral the next. Okay, about that feline funeral: thousands of Japanese gathered to say a last goodbye to a very special kitty this week. Her name was Stationmaster Tama, and yes, Tama was a cat and she really did have the job of stationmaster at a train stop in western Japan. For more about Tama, I called up New Yorker writer Roland Kelts. He’s the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.”
Roland Kelts: Well, Stationmaster Tama was a stray cat that had gathered around a rural train station in western Japan and was appointed station master in January of 2007 because the last employee was let go.
Werman: Nice looking calico in her prime. How did this kitty get to be such a culture celebrity?
Kelts: The station was faltering, didn’t have enough passengers, and was about to be closed. When Tama became stationmaster, the ridership increased dramatically and people from all over Japan actually went to this distant rural train station to meet the cat. She became an icon of, in a way, rural survivalism in Japan. The countryside is really hollowing out, it’s been happening over the past decade or so, and the population is aging, so a lot of people in those rural towns are older. I think Tama became an icon of their toughness and willingness to persevere.
Werman: So, what do stationmasters generally do and was Tama, the cat, able to do those things to?
Kelts: Well, in those distant train stations they’re often ticket takers because a lot of those stations don’t have the hyper-modern technology that you find in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. So, you don’t use a rail pass, you just buy an old fashioned paper ticket and the stationmaster collects it sometimes by hand as you pass through the wickets. Tama actually couldn’t, as far as I know, collect the tickets, but she was allegedly there to greet people, which is another important mission for the stationmaster.
Werman: I’m not going to anthropomorphize Tama too much, but I gather passengers paid her in cat food. That is for real, right?
Kelts: That’s absolutely correct. Yes, she was paid in cat food. Kept very healthy.
Werman: And then when she died recently, more than 3,000 people went to her funeral. It was a Shinto funeral. Maybe you can just tell us what that entails. What does that mean?
Kelts: Shinto is an animistic religion. One of the tenants is that everything in the natural world has a spirit inside it. And so, it’s not unusual in Japan to deify natural spirits. So, it makes perfect since that a cat would be deified.
Werman: What about cats generally in Japan? Are they admired, are they revered?
Kelts: Cats, I would say, are adored in Japan. Going back into the culture a thousand years ago, cats were deified and seen as creatures of good luck, particularly for fishermen. To this day, the classic maneki-neko, the statuette of the cat with the waving arm, actually the beckoning arm, which is supposed to bring good fortune, good luck, good business. Probably the most famous cat icon in the world at the moment is a cat with no mouth called Hello Kitty.
Werman: Of course. And that cat waving its arm can be found all over the globe waving its arm, courtesy to a small solar cell.
Kelts: That’s right.
Werman: So, after hearing Naomi’s story, before you and I started speaking, and the notion that she presented that religion in Japan is kind of ad hoc and very individualized--you take what you can from various traditions--it would seem that a cat that gets enshrined after her death totally fits into that.
Kelts: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s worth pointing out that five years ago or so there was a funeral for a very famous character from an anime series called Hokuto no Ken, and that character died in the series and there was a funeral held for the death of the anime character, and thousands attended that funeral.
Werman: Interesting, because when I was first told about Tama, I thought Tama was a character in some anime series and that they had put her down for the rest of her life. But it’s a fine line.
Kelts: Actually, it isn’t a fine line--I think that’s actually the point, that I find that in Japanese culture that the border line between the imaginative or the spiritual and the day to day, or what we think of as the realistic or naturalistic world, is much more porous.
Werman: Roland Kelts, always good to speak with you. Thank you.
Kelts: Thank you, Marco.
Werman: And goodbye kitty. We’ve posted a picture of Tama and her wonderful little stationmaster hat at PRI.ORG.