Beckoning Cat

lucky cat by Molly Brooks

The maneki-neko (Japanese: ‘beckoning cat’) is a common Japanese figurine (lucky charm, talisman) which is often believed to bring good luck to the owner. In modern times, they are usually made of ceramic or plastic. The figurine depicts a cat (traditionally a calico Japanese Bobtail) beckoning with an upright paw, and is usually displayed in—often at the entrance of—shops, restaurants, pachinko parlors, and other businesses. Some of the sculptures are electric or battery-powered and have a slow-moving paw beckoning. The maneki-neko is sometimes also called the ‘welcoming cat,’ ‘lucky cat,’ ‘money cat,’ ‘happy cat,’ or ‘fortune cat’ in English.

Maneki-neko come in different variations. Common colors are white, black, gold and sometimes red. In addition to 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 sometimes called the ‘Chinese lucky cat’ due to its popularity among Chinese merchants.

White cats are seen to bring about the happiness of its owner, along with purity, and positive energy. The luckiest of all the colors is considered to be the calico colored cat, black is meant to lure away evil spirits, and gold for monetary good fortune. Other popular colors include green and blue, which are both supposed to bring academic success, and pink, bringer of love. Green is also seen to bring about good health, while the red colors bring success in relationships old and new.

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.

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.

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 common belief is that the raised left paw brings in customers, while a right paw brings good luck and wealth. Another interpretation says that a raised left paw attracts money, while a raised right paw protects it. Still others say that a left paw raised is best for drinking establishments, the right paw for other stores (those who hold their liquor well are called ‘left-handed’ in Japanese). Yet another interpretation is that right is for home and left for business.

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. Some use the paw height as a crude method of gauging the relative age of a figure. Another common belief is that the higher the paw, the greater the distance good fortune will come from.

Maneki-neko usually have some sort of decoration around their neck. This can be a neckerchief or a scarf but the most common attire is a collar, bell and decorative bib. These items are most likely in imitation of what was common attire for cats in wealthy households during the Edo period. Red collars made from a red flower, the hichirimen, were popular and small bells were attached for decoration and to keep track of the cat’s whereabouts.

The bib might also be related to the bibs that often decorate statues of the Buddhist divinity called Jizō Bosatsu in Japan. 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 that have recovered from illness will place a bib around Jizō as a gift of gratitude.

Maneki-neko are sometimes depicted holding a coin, usually a gold coin called a koban, used during the Edo period in Japan. In Japanese, the idiom ‘koban to cats’ is a traditional saying equivalent to the Western ‘pearls before swine.’ Maneki-neko are often fashioned as coin banks, a practice which goes back at least to the 1890s, much like the Western piggy bank. Sometimes pennies and other small coin denominations are left on the maneki-neko as offerings. This practice is somewhat similar to that of leaving coins in a fountain or wishing well.

In modern Japanese culture, maneki-neko can be frequently found in rooms on the third floors of buildings, due to the auspicious qualities associated with the number three. Modern Japanese folklore suggests that keeping a talisman of good fortune, such as the maneki-neko, in bedrooms and places of study will bring about favorable results and life successes.

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