Charming cat figurines with characteristic waving paws are recognisable all around the world. But what’s actually behind those famous beckoning cats?
Let’s start with the Japanese name- maneki neko. It is written as 招き猫. 猫 simply means “cat”, whereas 招 means “to welcome, beckon” and comes from their waving gesture, which in Japan means beckoning. However, it can also be interpreted as a warning of incoming danger, so maneki neko are often worshipped as the reincarnation of Kannon, the Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy. Actually, there are a few legends about their origin from Japanese tradition. Most of them are from the Edo and early Meiji periods (Edo period 1603-1868, Meiji period 1868-1912).
The first legend is about a geisha (which is no surprise- the geisha tradition and entertainment districts were at their height in the Edo period). As she was getting ready, her beloved cat started to angrily attack her, scratching and screaming. Of course the geisha asked the owner of the house to help, who cut off the animal’s head with a sword. Miraculously, the cat’s flying head saved its owner- it bit a poisonous snake that was about to attack the geisha. It’s not surprising that the geisha was utterly devastated after the loss of her beloved animal, so the house owner gave her a gift- a ceramic figure of the cat. The legend is a beautiful example of sacrifice and the pain of losing one thing in order to save another, which is an extremely popular literary motif since ancient times.
The next two legends are linked to the Tokyo temple Gōtokuji, located in the Setagaya district. It goes without saying that for this reason the temple is closely linked to maneki neko- you can find cat motifs on the pagoda opposite the entrance to the main prayer hall, as well as on the interior walls.
In the temple you can buy a maneki neko figure as a lucky charm. People usually purchase them and make a wish. When it comes true, they return to Gōtokuji and leave the figurine there, creating a very impressive cluster of them that makes￼ the temple unique. There is also the custom of burying the ashes of pets in the vicinity of the temple.
The first legend related to Gōtokuji is about a group of samurai on horses who arrived at the temple and spotted a small cat cleaning itself at the entrance. The movement of its paw around the ears resembled waving, which in Japan is a beckoning gesture. Therefore the samurai peacefully entered the temple, without harming the inhabitants of the area. Here the cat takes on the role of a peacekeeper and lifesaver- this time of many people.
The next legend is about a man called Ii Naosuke, who went to the temple to meet an imperial falconer. On his way home, it started raining, so he hid under a tree, from where he noticed an old, collapsing temple. At the entrance was a cat who appeared to be waving, so Naosuke headed towards it- as he did, the tree was struck by lightning. Once again a small cat saved a human life. Filled with gratitude, the man gave the temple a considerable sum of money, saving it from closure.
The final legend is about an old cat lady who unfortunately fell into poverty, which forced her to sell her beloved cats. Because she still didn’t have enough money, she started making realistic figurines of them. They became very popular and fashionable, and the old lady could pay her debts- a lovely example of a seemingly hopeless situation turning out well.,
The meaning of cats in Japanese culture is quite ambiguous. On one hand, they are very vigilant animals and get rid of mice, but on the other- they are perceived to have the ability of transform into demons. Cats in Japanese tradition is a very interesting topic that I will certainly expand in another post.
What about the appearance of the figurines? Although it seems like a simple figure of a cat, there is lots of symbolism behind it. Maneki neko are based on the Japanese bobtail cat breed- their characteristic feature is a very, very short tail as well as strongly vertical ears. They are believed to bring good luck, but more on that in a future post.
Maneki neko have red collars (red is a lucky colour) with a bell or golden coin attached, on which is written what the cat is supposed to attract- for example money or luck.
Originally the figurines were ceramic, of course today they are usually made of synthetic materials. There are many different sizes and colours, making them rather varied despite their similar shapes.
Let’s stop at the colours for a moment.
• tricoloured: tricoloured Japanese bobtail cats are rather rare and therefore are believed to bring plenty of luck and money.
• white: like in western culture, white symbolises innocence and purity, brings luck
• black: scares away demons and wards off evil
• gold: money, prosperity, fortune
• pink: attracts love
• green: success in studies, exams
• red: wards off illness
• blue: attracts success, home safety
The waving paw is important too.
If the right paw is waving, it attracts luck and prosperity.
The left paw brings clients and guests, making it good for businesses.
The higher the paw, the better.
Very rarely you can find cats with both paws raised, but the Japanese consider them exaggerated and so they aren’t popular.
So, what is the cultural meaning of maneki neko?
They are popular not only in Japan, but also China and Thailand. They are commonly placed on entrances to shops and restaurants, attracting clients. Placed on marketplaces and exhibitions, they are believed to bring money. In private homes, they are supposed to bring luck and ward off misfortune.
In the city of Seto in Aichi prefecture is a museum of ceramics with one of the largest maneki neko collections in Japan. There are over 1000 examples from different regions and periods.
The instantly recognisable Hello Kitty is also based off maneki neko, although it’s quite hard to see at first.
The most famous cities producing maneki neko are Seto (Aichi pref.) and Takasaki (Gunma pref.), whereas the largest amounts are made in Tokoname, Aichi pref. Tokoname is particularly interesting because it has a massive (almost 4m tall) maneki neko figurine called Tokonyan. It’s just the head placed on top of a wall, creating the effect that it’s looking over the city from behind it. In front of it are two brown cat sculptures, approximately the size of real ones. On top of that the city has a road nicknamed the Tokoname Maneki-Neko Street, which is where Tokonyan is, but also 39 ceramic cats on its concrete wall. They all have very different forms, many of them differ a lot from regular maneki neko, and each one is made by a different artist. Each cat also has a different meaning (i.e. what it’s supposed to bring or deter). On top of that the official mascot of the city is a maneki-neko called Tokotan. What can I say, Tokoname is the perfect place for cat lovers.
The importance of maneki neko in Japan doesn’t end here. There is an Association for Maneki Neko Japan, based in Gunma pref. For a reasonable fee members receive four club magazines. The association also designated the 29th of September as the maneki neko day, because the date can be read as “fortune coming your way”.
Around the maneki neko day, several festivals are held around the country, for example in Ise (Mie pref.) and Shimabara (Nagasaki pref.). You can admire displays of those adorable art forms, buy your own (and related goods), and even try your hand at creating a unique lucky cat.
Since maneki neko are an art form, it’s no surprise that there is a museum dedicated to them. It is located in Okayama City (prefecture of the same same). There are 700 permanent exhibits featuring maneki neko made from a variety of materials. There are also seasonal themed exhibits and the opportunity to create your own figurines.
Maneki neko truly are an interesting and lovely tradition, one of the things that drew me to Japanese culture. Although I don’t truly believe in their abilities to bring or deter certain things due to my religion, the encouraging waving paw of the cat figurine on my desk never fails to lift my spirits.