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Chances are, if you’ve ever been to a Japanese or Chinese restaurant, you’ve probably seen one. Their happy looking eyes. Their little paws that beckon you towards them. That cute mouth that just seems to say “Hey you! Buy some egg rolls!” Yes, I’m talking about Japan’s beckoning cat, maneki-neko. They’re common in restaurants, stores and anywhere else where bringing in people means bringing in the money.

maneki-neko

But what is the deal with these little felines? Why would you get a cat to welcome people? How come some of them are holding yellow kanji flashcards? And no matter how you look at it, those cats are definitely waving, not beckoning, right? For the answers to these questions and more, we’ll begin with the humble origins of the maneki-neko. Hang on to your cat; we’re travelling back to the Edo era.

Origins of Maneki-neko

In 1633, a daimyo by the name of Ii Naotaka was out and about, doing the sorts of things daimyos did back then. On his way home, he was caught in a rainstorm and sought shelter under a tree. Nearby was an old, rundown shrine, whose owner had a pet cat. Naotaka noticed the cat beckoning him over to the shrine. He figured whatever a cat had to tell him was important enough to risk getting a little wet, and hurried on over to the temple.

Then, as if on cue, Naotaka’s former shelter of a tree exploded into a twisted mess of splinters and post-lightning fire. Shocked that the cat had just saved him from getting a much larger shocking, Naotaka decided to return the favor, making sure the temple, and its beckoning cat, never had to worry about money again. The temple was renamed Gotokuji Temple after Naotaka’s posthumous Buddhist name, and is, to this day, filled with beckoning cat statues. The tradition of maneki-neko was born.

ii-naotaka

Another legend tells of a cat loving geisha by the name of Usugumo. One night, her beloved pet cat began to pull at her clothes. Usugumo tried and failed to get the cat to stop and, not wanting it to claw up her fancy kimono, called for help. The owner of the establishment misunderstood, and thought that the cat was possessed. He pulled out his sword and quickly cut off the head of the cat. The cat’s head went flying through the air and, in one last act of loyalty, bit and killed a snake about to attack Usugumo.

Realizing that the cat was trying to warn her about the snake, Usugumo became depressed over the loss of her pint sized protector. To cheer her up, a customer created a wooden statue of her cat, with a paw raised in warning. And the tradition of maneki-neko was born. Again.

superman-cat

Photo by Ann Lee

A third legend tells of an old woman and her pet cat. The old woman was very poor and, without any daimyos around to save from lightning, was forced to sell her cat. The cat later comes to her in a dream and instructs her to create a clay model of it. The old woman follows the cat’s slightly egotistical advice, and finds that someone wants to buy it. She creates more statues, which become extremely popular, turning her cats into cash. And, for the third time this article, the tradition of maneki-neko was born.

Yes, But What Does It All Mean?

But wait, a cat with its paw up doesn’t look like its beckoning, right? Well, that depends where you live. In Japan, the gesture is reversed, with the fingers downward (as demonstrated by Koichi in this video). There are also westernized maneki-neko with the paw facing the opposite direction, mimicking the western style of beckoning. These maneki-neko are sometimes depicted with coins with dollar signs on them, earning them the name “dollar cats.”

Of course, if western maneki-neko are holding western money, it only makes sense that the classic maneki-neko of the east are holding classic money of the east. Many maneki-neko are seen holding a ryo, an old form of currency from the Edo era that was worth quite a bit of money. Additionally, many of the ryo that maneki-neko are labeled 千万両, meaning “ten million ryo”. Then again, since 千万 can also mean “a great many”, it’s possible that these maneki-neko simply cannot count particularly high.

giant-maneki-neko

Photo by 663highland

The maneki-neko is said to be beckoning for different things, depending on which paw it’s using. A maneki-neko with its left paw up is inviting people, while one with its right paw is inviting money. Although, if you’re a shopkeeper, you probably want people to come to your store and buy things, so you may want one of each. Or, better yet, one with both paws raised.

Now, if something as little as which paw is up has meaning, it’s reasonable to expect color to play a big part, too. Yes, just like how the color of candy tells you its flavor, the color of a maneki-neko tells you what that cat’s talent is.

The classic calico design is the most popular, and brings its owner fortune. Likewise, an all-white cat is also for luck. A black maneki-neko is useful for warding off disease and evil. A gold maneki-neko performs as you may expect, and brings in the money. A red one is used for both protection from disease and demons, and bringing its owner good health. Pink is used for inviting love. There are other various colors, such as yellow or green, that are sometimes linked to feng shui.

many-maneki-neko

So, have you had any experiences with maneki-neko? Have you seen any strange or rare ones? Do you own a maneki-neko? Personally, I have a little one that sits by my computer. It doesn’t bring luck or money or anything, but I’ve never been attacked by any snakes while it’s around, and that’s gotta count for something.

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  • Datte baru

    Once I found one but the creepy guy selling it said : Nooo ! It will bring you baaaad luck ! but just buuuuy it ….

  • DAVIDPD

    How could Tofugu not have done a Maneki Neko article before? I love seeing them in front of stores.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Sounds like a pretty awful sales pitch. I’m assuming you bought it, and when you went back the next day to return it, THE STORE WASN’T THERE ANYMORE!

  • jordan

    It’s because I called dibs on a Menki-neko article shortly after Tofugu launched, and I’ve been procrastinating on it until just now.

  • el

    I have statues all different sizes and colors. All over my home and at work. Need all the beckoning $$ to come in!
    People give these out as gifts too.

  • DAVIDPD

    …My Gawd…

  • Mescale

    Once I was drunk and was seduced by a maneki-neko, and thats why it was in my pants. At least thats what I told the police.

    True story.

  • Tora.Silver

    And then you were bit by a snake.

  • Bry Joy

    I got a maneki-neko for christmas! It’s pretty big and it’s a gold one! I have been earning a lot more money lately… hmm…

  • Bry Joy

    I got a maneki-neko for christmas! It’s pretty big and it’s a gold one! I have been earning a lot more money lately… hmm…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1037403194 Dharma Mauricio

    I can’t miss the chance of watching a sexy video by Koichi

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    The snake was just trying to save me from a guy with a sword, though.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I’m a huge maneki neko fan. I own a huge collection and almost every single time I travel I buy a new one.
    I’ve been to several cat shrines and temples in Japan and not to forget Cat Island.
    Can never get enough of it! ^^;

  • http://www.facebook.com/perry.brown1 Perry Brown

    Now I’m wondering what a maneki-neko lying horizontally signifies…

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    In addition to regular profits, you’ll earn a little bit of extra cash. On the side.

  • Lionrence

    when I lived with my ex he was obsessed with Maneki Neko, so we had a ton of them all over the house lol, I don’t know if they’re lucky, but they’re quite cute^^

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    I sleep in Maneki-neko pajamas. You don’t want to ring my doorbell at night, trust me.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Because the doorbell plays a really spooky tune?

  • Tora.Silver

    It wasn’t the guy with the sword you had to worry about, it was the cat ruining your kimono.

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    Yes. A spooky tune. A really spooky tune.

    No, because unless you want to see a giant, moving 6-foot tall maneki-neko, you’d be best advised to wait till noon. PS, I always answer the door with my right hand up, so bring cash.

  • Alicia

    There’s one at a farmer’s market stand that sells Chinese food. Its arm is motorised and waves.

  • Datte baru

    I did buy it , and it fell oddly in the stares and I had to pay for the lamp his head broke … that cat’s head was quite creepy

  • Jusilla

    Thanks for the wallpaper guys, love it! :) Just back from Japan last week, saw a lot of these kitties…