He’s usually there greeting you at the entrance of shops, restaurants, souvenir shops and other establishments, his upright paw beckoning. But just who is that cat?
You’ve probably seen this cat countless times around Japan, and most likely other countries too. He’s usually dubbed the “lucky cat”, “fortune cat”, or even “money cat” and is believed to bring good fortune (as in money!) to shop owners, hence his presence at various businesses.
Some say that a raised right paw invites money and a raised left paw invites people and happiness. Some cats even have both paws raised (maybe extra prosperity?) and, well, you can even find battery-operated maneki neko who tirelessly beckon and greet.
The cat’s gesture is often misinterpreted as a wave by Westerners: the palm-out hand which repeatedly folds fingers over urging people to come hither is upturned in a way somewhat confusing to many from other parts of the world… Funnily, some cats specifically made for the Western market feature the cat’s paw facing backwards to make the the ‘beckoning’ gesture more familiar.
Besides the paw quirks and all, where is the cat from? You may have heard China, but that is wrong. Maneki neko are sometimes called the “Chinese lucky cat” by mistake, as the charm is increasingly popular among Chinese shop-owners.
Some say he’s from Osaka, but other say he’s from Edo (present day Tokyo). There are a lot of folk tales which could explain the cat’s origins, ranging from a sappy story about a stray cat thankful to the shop owner who fed him, to a disturbing one about an angry cat who clawed a woman’s kimono and was then beheaded and turned into a charm.
Perhaps the most popular tale is that of Gotokuji Temple in Setagaya, Tokyo, in which a feudal lord took shelter under a tree at that temple during a thunderstorm thanks to a beckoning cat. The lord was so glad he didn’t get wet that he made a big donation to re-build the poverty-stricken temple. When the cat died, a temple was built in his honour and he became a god; if you visit Gotokuji Temple now, you can see for sale maneki neko in all sizes and colors imaginable.
Regardless of his exact origins and story, the maneki neko is ubiquitous in Japanese culture and, whether or not he actually brings prosperity, we think he’s still pretty good to look at and is a soothing, friendly face to have around.
Text by Vivian Morelli. Image: BONGURI/Flickr
For more information on the craftspeople of Japan and to buy some of the products talked about here, visit JCRAFTS.com, an online shop that sells items with engrained Japanese spirit to 120 countries worldwide while aiming to also teach you all about where they come from.
We will be featuring some products from different regions of Japan over the next few weeks so let us know what you think!