Kitkat bars in dozens of flavors, rockabilly music, and KFC for Christmas dinner? These are a few of Japan’s quirky infatuations. And then there are cats – all kinds of cats. . .
Only in Japan would a cat named Tama-chan become so revered that she would be given a Shinto-style funeral attended by thousands.
And only in Japan would Tama, who started life as a local stray near Kishi station on the sleepy railway line in Wakayama prefecture, become Kishi station’s honorary stationmaster. Wearing the railway cap and cape for 8 years, Tama was able to breathe life into the local economy.
The last human employee at Kishi station had to be laid off in 2006 as passengers dwindled and the railway found itself losing $4 million a year. But shortly after Tama was elevated to stationmaster on a whim, she raised traffic on the rural rail line by 10% her first year as visitors from all over Japan came to see her. In 2009 a special “cat-train” covered with cartoon images of Tama started running. Soon after sprung up a Tama-themed café, cupcakes embellished with Tama’s likeness, and a shop selling Tama figurines and key chains. Tama’s estimated contribution to the local economy was 1.1 billion yen or about $8.9 million. And when Tama died of heart failure in late June, 3000 people attended her funeral, including railway officials and the governor of Wakayama.
Perhaps the Tama phenomenon isn’t so surprising in a country where cats are so loved. There are cat-faced figurines, cat cafes, Cat Island, Hello Kitty, and the lucky waving Maneki-neto cats that beckon you into businesses.
But how these quirky obsessions in Japan get started is an interesting question. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen took a stab at explaining it in a 2009 column when he wrote: “My sense is that four factors have contributed to this: wealth, postmodernism, conformism, and despair. Japan is rich enough, bored enough with national ambition, strait-jacketed enough and gloomy enough to find immense attraction in playful escapism and quirky obsession.”
And so it may well be — or may well have been. Yes, Japan is rich enough and comfortable enough for boredom to arise and escapism to appeal. And yes, the pressure to conform could spur a retreat to some odd and private obsessions. But these days, Japan’s national ambition may just be firing up as the economy reawakens.