The Maneki Neko: Japan's Lucky Cat

The Maneki Neko: Japan's Lucky Cat

If you've ever been to a Chinese or Japanese restaurant, an Asian supermarket, or a Chinatown store, you may have noticed a small statue of a cat perched next to the cash register. Because of its popularity in Chinatown, many people would associate this image with Chinese culture. But in fact, it originated in Japan. It's the maneki neko, the beckoning cat, also known as the welcoming cat, lucky cat, and money cat. It is a talisman believed to bring good luck and wealth to its owner.

What is a Maneki Neko?

Maneki Neko

The maneki neko is a Japanese figurine that is believed to have the ability to bring good luck to its owner. Traditionally, it is a seated Japanese short-tailed cat with one raised paw, two pointed red ears, and a golden koban coin in its other paw. The maneki neko comes in different materials and styles. It is usually ceramic, however, you may find them made of a variety of materials - from wood to plastic and from jade to gold. In addition to the figurine, the maneki neko can also be found in the form of key chains, piggy banks, earrings, and so forth.

Nowadays, the maneki neko is still prevalent in Japan. It is common to see them in shrines. In addition to religious places, the maneki neko can also be found in places of business throughout Japan, such as restaurants, stores, bars, and arcades.

The History of the Maneki Neko

Maneki Neko

There is no common view on the origin of the first maneki neko. Regardless of the exact origin, one thing is certain: cats are believed to bring good luck. There is a Japanese proverb that says 'Killing a cat will bring retribution and prolong misfortune for seven generations'. It’s a primitive folk belief that cats are vengeful and have a lifespan beyond that of humans. There is a belief in the power of cats: cats will be good to you if you take care of them.

However, most people agree that the maneki neko first appeared in the Edo period (1603-1867). The most famous story is that Ii Naotaka saw the pet cat of the monk of Gotokuji Temple waving to him when he was in the middle of hunting with a falcon. He decided to follow the cat to see what was going on. At that moment, lightning struck the exact spot where he had been standing a few seconds before. Naotaka was so grateful to the cat for saving his life that donated a lot of money to the temple and made the cat the guardian deity of Gotokuji Temple. Since then, it has been worshiped in its own shrine. Today, the temple is decorated with thousands of statues of maneki neko in different sizes. These figurines can be purchased at the temple and are usually left as offerings, though some people prefer to take them home as souvenirs.

The earliest records of the maneki neko appeared in 1852. Its traces can be found in BukĹŤ nenpyĹŤ (a chronology of Edo) and Joruri-machi Hanka no Zu (a Ukiyo-e). In the Meiji era (1868-1912), maneki neko is mentioned again in a newspaper article in 1876. There is also evidence that maneki neko in kimono were distributed at shrines in Osaka at that time. In 1902, advertisements for maneki neko indicate that it became a popular commodity in the early 20th century. The 1980s and 1990s saw a boom in Japanese pop culture. The image of the maneki neko soon appeared in art, fashion, and even video games. Therefore, the maneki neko was further integrated into mainstream culture.

Types of Maneki Neko

Maneki Neko

Although they may seem similar, there are many types of maneki neko, all of which have a special meaning. You can choose one according to your needs.

1. Ornaments

  • Collars with bells: To show that it belongs to a wealthy owner.
  • Bibs: They may be worn like the way many Buddhist Jizo statues in temples and shrines wear red bibs for protection.
  • Koban coin: It’s a traditional Edo coin that means ten million taels ($10 billion), indicating enormous wealth.
  • Money bag: It symbolizes luck and wealth.
  • Fish: It represents strength, vitality, and wealth.
  • Ball or gem: This is another money magnet and also represents wisdom.
  • Wine barrel: It wards off evil spirits and attracts good luck.
  • Hammer: A small hammer represents wealth.
  • Radish: It symbolizes prosperity and good luck
  • Fan/Drum: This represents good luck in business. The drum, in particular, symbolizes a store with a steady stream of customers.

2. Paws

  • Right paw raised: brings wealth and good luck.
  • Left paw raised: attracts customers to the place of business.
  • Both claws raised: provides protection.

3. Colors

  • Calico: the traditional color, considered to be the luckiest
  • White: happiness, purity, and positive things to come
  • Black: protection against evil
  • Red: prevention of disease and success in relationships
  • Gold: wealth and prosperity
  • Green: health and security
  • Blue: wisdom and success
  • Pink: love and romance
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