The Maneki Neko (literally “beckoning cat”) is a common Japanese figurine (lucky charm, talisman) which is often believed to bring good luck to the owner.
The figurine depicts a cat beckoning with an upright paw, and is usually displayed in—often at the entrance of—shops, restaurants, pachinko parlors, laundromats, dry cleaners, salons, and other businesses. Some of the sculptures are electric or battery-powered and have a slow-moving paw beckoning.
In addition to ceramic figurines, Maneki Neko can be found as keychains, piggy banks, air fresheners, house-plant pots, and miscellaneous ornaments, as well as large statues. It is also called the “Chinese lucky cat” because of its popularity among Chinese merchants.
The name Maneki Neko can be interpreted as a waving cat or a chant of a chant.
To some Westerners (Italians and Spaniards are notable exceptions) it may seem as if the Maneki Neko is waving rather than beckoning. This is due to the difference in gestures and body language recognized by some Westerners and the Japanese.
The Japanese beckoning gesture is made by holding up the hand, palm down, and repeatedly folding the fingers down and back, thus the cat’s appearance. Some Maneki Neko made specifically for some Western markets will have the cat’s paw facing upwards, in a beckoning gesture that is more familiar to most Westerners.
Maneki Neko can be found with either the right or left paw raised (and sometimes both). The significance of the right and left raised paw differs with time and place.
A statue with the left paw raised is to get more customers, while the right paw raised is to get more money. Hence it is also said that the one with a left paw is for business and the right is for home.
Some Maneki-Neko feature battery- or solar-powered moving arms endlessly engaged in the beckoning gesture.
Originally, the Maneki Neko is in white. But over the years with the combination of Feng Shui, different color variations were born.
The original white color is to get good luck and overall good fortune, while black is to ward off evil, red is for good health, yellow or gold is for wealth, and pink is for romance.
It is commonly believed that Maneki Neko originated in Tokyo (then named Edo), while some insist it was Kyoto. Maneki Neko first appeared during the later part of the Edo period in Japan.
The earliest records of Maneki Neko appear in the Bukō nenpyō’s (a chronology of Edo) entry dated 1852. Utagawa Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e “Joruri-machi Hanka no Zu,” painted also in 1852, depicts the Marushime Neko, a variation of Maneki-Neko, being sold at Senso temple, Tokyo.
In 1876, during the Meiji era, it was mentioned in a newspaper article, and there is evidence that kimono-clad Maneki-Neko was distributed at a shrine in Osaka during this time. A 1902 advertisement for Maneki-Neko indicates that by the turn of the century they were popular. Beyond this the exact origins of Maneki-Neko are uncertain.
Some have noted the similarities between the Maneki Neko’s gesture and that of a cat washing its face. There is a Japanese belief that a cat washing its face means a visitor will soon arrive. This belief may, in turn, be related to an even older Chinese proverb that states that if a cat washes its face, it will rain.
Thus, it is possible a belief arose that a figure of a cat washing its face would bring in customers. In his Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang, China’s Tang Dynasty author Duan Chengshi (803?–863) wrote:
“If a cat raises its paw over the ears and washes its face, then patrons will come”.
Statues of cats washing their ears (though very different in style to Maneki Neko) have been found as early as the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 to 534 AD).
There are many legends about the birth of Maneki Neko, of which the most popular is the legend of Gotoku temple.
In the 17th century, a poor monk lived in a small temple in Tokyo. Although his life was very difficult, he shared his own meager meals with his pet cat, Tama.
One day, Lord Nakaota Ii of the Hikone district was on the way to hunt when suddenly a storm came, and he had to seek safety under a big tree near the temple. Sheltering there, he noticed the cat, Tama, raising one paw as if waving him to the temple. Curious, he left his cover and headed for the temple to have a better look at the strange cat. As he did so, a lightning bolt destroyed the tree he had just stood beneath.
Nakaota was so grateful, he became the patron of the temple, repaired it to become more spacious and in 1697 renamed it Gotoku temple. When Tama died, he was buried in a special graveyard for cats. In the temple, a statue of Maneki Neko was made to commemorate this special cat that has been revered ever since.
Alternatively, according to a folktale, the operator of an impoverished shop (or inn, tavern, temple, etc.) took in a starving stray cat despite barely having enough to feed himself.
In gratitude, the cat sat in the front of the store beckoning customers, thus bringing prosperity as a reward to the charitable proprietor. Ever after, the “beckoning cat” has been a symbol of good luck for small business owners.