Also known as Welcoming Cat, Lucky Cat, Money cat or Fortune Cat, the Maneki Neko cat is an Asian charm believed to bring good luck to the owner.
Maneki Neko literally means Beckoning Cat, and depicts a Japanese Bobtailcat beckoning with an upright or up-left paw. It is usually displayed at the entrance of shops, restaurants, pachinko parlors or other businesses.
The Maneki Neko cat gesture
To Europeans and Americans the Maneki Neko cat seems to be waving rather than beckoning. This is due to the difference between gestures and body language recognized by Westerners and Japanese, with Japanese beckoning by holding up the hand, palm out, and repeatedly folding the fingers down and back up, thus the cat's appearance. Some Maneki Neko made specifically for Western markets will have the cat's paw facing backwards, in a beckoning gesture more familiar to Westerners.
Nonetheless, the gesture of the Maneki Neko cat is that of a cat washing its face. Note that cats wash their face before a rain because they can feel the changing weather pattern. The keen sensory of cats can detect the minute environmental changes, which make them uneasy. This is why they wash their face, they are trying to ease their anxiety.
The Maneki Neko cat can be found with either the right or left paw raised. The significance of the right and left raised paw differs with time and place. The most common belief is that the left paw raised brings in customers, while a right paw brings wealth and good luck, although some believe the opposite. Still others say that a left paw raised is best for drinking establishments, the right paw for other stores.
It is commonly believed the higher the raised paw, the greater the luck. Consequently, over the years Maneki Neko's paw has tended to appear ever higher. Another common belief is that the higher the paw, the greater the distance good fortune will come from.
The Maneki Neko cat history
The Maneki Neko cat is believed to have first appeared during the later part of the Edo period (1603-1867) in Japan. However the earliest documentary evidence comes from the 1870s, during Japan's Meiji Era. Actually in a 1876 newspaper article is mentioned that kimono-clad Maneki Neko were distributed at a shrine in Osaka during that time. By the turn of the century they had become rather popular and were being advertised.
The Maneki Neko cat legends
The Maneki Neko cat is the subject of numerous legends, however three of them are the most popular:
The temple cat
In the 17th century, there was a rundown and poverty-stricken temple in Tokyo. Nonetheless, this didn't stop the temple's priest from sharing what little food had with his pet cat, Tama.
One day, a wealthy man was caught in a storm while hunting and took refugee under a big tree near the temple. While he waited for the storm to pass, the man noticed a cat beckoning him to come inside the temple gate. The man left the shelter of the tree to have a closer look at this unusual cat and at that very moment, the tree was struck by a lighting.
Therefore, the wealthy man and the poor priest became friends and the temple became prosperous. When Tama died he was buried in the Goutokuji Temple's cat cemetery with respect and love and a Maneki Neko was made in his honor.
During the Edo Period, in the eastern part of Tokyo called Yoshiwara, lived a Geisha named Usugumo. The Geisha loved cats and constantly kept her feline pet by her side. One night, on her way to the powder room, the cat began tugging her kimono violently, refusing to let go. The owner of the amusement house thought that the cat was bewitched and lopped off its head with his sword. The head then flew to the ceiling and killed a snake poised to kill Usugumo. Usugumo, being terribly distraught by the wrongful death of her beloved cat, collapsed. To make her feel better, one of her customers gave her a wood-carved image of the cat, which later gained popularity as the Maneki Neko cat.
The old woman
During the 19th century,in Imado (eastern Tokyo) there was an old woman who was extremely poor and had a cat that she loved dearly. Eventually, she could no longer care for the cat and had to sell her. That same night, her cat appeared to her in a dream telling her to make her image out of clay and that this clay image would bring her good fortune. The old woman followed the cat’s instructions and soon after a visitor offered to buy the clay cat. The old woman went on making clay cats that more and more people bought, and soon she became prosperous and wealthy.
The Maneki Neko charm
Maneki Neko are typically made of porcelain or ceramic. However, cheaper Maneki Neko can be made of other materials such as plastic, wood, papier-mâché and clay, while expensive Maneki Neko may be made of jade or gold.
Maneki Neko usually bare a collar, a bell and a decorative bib around their neck. These items are an imitation of what was common attire for cats in wealthy households during the Edo period. Red collars were made of a red flower, the hichirimen, while small bells were attached for decoration and also for keeping track of the cat's whereabouts.
The bib might also be related to the bibs often decorating statues of the divinity Jizō Bosatsu. Protective statues of Jizō can be found guarding the entrances to Japanese shrines and graveyards. Jizō is the protector of sick and dying children and grateful parents of children recovered from illness will place a bib around Jizō as a gift of thankfulness.
Maneki Neko are also depicted holding a gold coin called koban. The koban was used during the Edo period in Japan and equals to 1K USD, though some historians claim more.
The coin is related with the cat's bringing good fortune and wealth. No surprise that Maneki Neko are used as banks, much like the Western piggy bank.
Sometimes, pennies and other small coin denominations are left on the Maneki Neko cat as offerings. This is a practice somewhat related to that of leaving coins in a fountain or wishing well.