January 07, 2022 6 min read
If you have the chance to visit Japan, you will probably find many occasions to admire small cat statuettes with their paw raised at the entrance of shops, restaurants and sometimes even in the homes of the locals. This cat is named maneki neko in Japanese. Ok then, but... what is it exactly?
First of all, "maneki neko" in Japanese (招 き 猫) literally means "the beckoning cat" or "the cat that invites". A traditional Japanese good luck charm depicted as a cat sitting, smiling and raising one or two front paws. This lucky cat is celebrated in Japan on September 29 and its interesting history dates back a long time ago.
The history of the maneki neko is quite unclear. There are actually several legends that tell the story about this cat but the most popular one is the one about a rich lord named Naotaka Ii.
During the Edo period (1603-1867), in the west of Tokyo, there used to be a temple in a pitiful state. The temple was run by a very poor priest whose only companion was a cat named Tama with whom he shared his meager resources. One day, the rich lord Naotaka Ii passed by this temple on his way back from hunting when a violent storm broke out. He took refuge under a tree, just in front of the temple square where the cat Tama was standing. The cat was grooming itself, licking its paws and passing them behind its ears. The lord was intrigued by this cat and, thinking that the animal was beckoning him to come, left his shelter to approach it. A few seconds later, lightning struck the tree under which he had taken shelter earlier.
Without this cat that seemed to invite him with its raised paw, Lord Naotaka Ii would no longer be of this world. He met the poor priest and saw the dilapidated state of the temple. As a sign of gratitude, the lord offered the priest enough money to restore the temple and live a comfortable life. After the cat's death, a statue was built of him sitting with his paw raised in memory of that stormy day. In the region, everyone considered that this cat had brought fortune and happiness to its owner, so the statue of the cat was reproduced and placed in houses and at the entrance of shops; the maneki neko was born.
Maneki neko at the Gotokuji temple.
The temple about which the legend speaks would be the Gotokuji temple located in the Setagaya district, in the west of Tokyo. Here you can find an altar covered with many maneki neko statuettes, placed by those who wish to attract luck and good fortune.
Another legend tells the story of a courtesan named Usugumo who lived with her cat in Yoshiwara, east of Tokyo. One night, her cat grabbed her kimono and started to pull on it wildly. The courtesan tried to stop the cat, but nothing helped, and the cat continued to damage her beautiful kimono by pulling on it. She decided to call for help and the owner of the brothel came running with his sword in hand. Believing that the cat was possessed, he cut off its head with one blow. The cat's head flew into the air and with a last breath bit and killed a snake that was about to attack the courtesan.
After realizing that her cat was trying to protect her from the snake, Usugumo was devastated by the death of her faithful four-legged friend. To console her, a client carved a small wooden statue of her cat, with one paw raised as if to warn of danger. This is how the tradition of maneki neko was born.
In this legend, a poor old woman was forced to sell her cat to survive. Soon after, her cat appeared to her in a dream and told her to create a clay statue of him. As soon as she woke up, she obeyed, made a small statue of her cat and managed to sell it. She made others and many people came to buy her statues which became very popular. As a result, the poor woman became rich thanks to her cat. And, for the third time in this article, the tradition of maneki neko was born.
Traditionally found at the entrance of businesses or displayed in Japanese homes, the cat statuette is reputed to be a powerful good luck charm that brings good fortune, luck and prosperity to anyone who owns one. Its power will depend on the raised paw, its color and the symbols drawn on its belly. Let's have a closer look...
Why does the maneki neko signify "the beckoning cat"? And why does this cat have its paw raised near its ear?
It may seem strange to us Westerners, but this gesture is very close to the Japanese way of signaling to come. People in Japan (and China) invite people to come by raising their hand palm outwards and lowering their arm and fingers forward several times. The most common legend of the maneki neko has Lord Naotaka Ii confusing this gesture with the movement the cat makes when it cleans behind its ears with its paw.
Since this lucky cat has crossed borders to the West, some versions have the palm turned backwards to remind the Western gesture of invitation.
Maneki neko may raise the right paw, the left paw or sometimes both at the same time. If the cat raises its left paw, it will attract customers, while if it raises its right paw, it will attract fortune and luck. Or the opposite... Indeed, the meaning of the raised paw can be different according to the time and the regions; and the beliefs on this topic are various and varied.
In any case, the Japanese seem to agree that the higher the paw of the cat, the more luck it attracts (or the more luck comes from afar). Over time, the paws of the maneki neko became higher and higher and it is even possible to determine its era according to that height.
Solar lucky cat - Japan Avenue
Some of the more modern versions of the maneki neko have a raised paw that swings back and forth thanks to a battery or a solar sensor. This solar maneki neko will thus repeat its welcoming gesture tirelessly.
Depending on the color of the statuette, the maneki neko will not necessarily have the same meaning.
This emblematic cat is often represented with symbols drawn on its belly or objects between its paws. Most often, the maneki neko wears a red collar around its neck with a small bell and a decorative bib. These attributes represent the accessories that were worn by the cats of rich owners during the Edo period.
Sometimes the maneki neko holds a big golden coin against his belly, called a Koban. This gold coin was used during the Edo era in Japan and was worth one Ryo, the common currency at that time (now replaced by the Yen). Most of the Koban worn by maneki neko are marked with an inscription that specifies that this coin is worth ten million Ryo. Needless to say that this attribute symbolizes wealth and helps the cat to attract luck and fortune to its owner. Moreover, it is not uncommon to find Japanese people putting a coin on the statuette, just as a Westerner would throw a coin in a well or a fountain.
Who would say no to a little happiness, fortune and wealth? Especially when the lucky charm looks like a cat as cute as the maneki neko.
Check out our Maneki Neko collection, where you will find many maneki neko in different styles and shapes. This emblematic cat has long been declined in many different products: maneki neko bracelet, statuette, chime, keychain and even piggy banks.
Wish your family friends happiness and luck by offering them this Japanese good luck charm and attract good fortune and prosperity to your household!
Maneki neko bell - Japan Avenue
For further reading on Japanese culture, be sure to follow our blog dedicated to Japan.
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