Origin of the maneki-neko

Maneki-neko literally means “beckoning cat”. It is a popular good luck charm placed at the entrance of businesses or homes to welcome good luck into the building. You’ve no doubt seen them if you have visited Japan and you see them in Chinatowns but apparently it is Japanese in origin. It is a very kitsch product by Western standards. It depicts a Japanese Bobtail cat, the preferred coat of which should be tricolour or ‘calico’ to use an American term which is black, orange and white. The Japanese Bobtail domestic, purebred cat is quite a slender creature but the maneki-neko is dumpy.

Maneki-neko figurine
Maneki-neko figurine. Image by Tania Van den Berghen from Pixabay
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It dates to the 17th century. The left paw is usually raised but it can be the left or right paw depending upon the owner’s preference. The paw faces down.

It swings back and forth and some have motorised arms to beckon people in all day long. They are often depicted seated and holding a koban coin which is an oval coin from Japan’s Edo period.

The exact origins are unclear but there is an early record of the figurine being sold at a stall in a woodblock print from the series ‘Flourishing Business in Balladtown (Jôruri-machi hanka no zu)’, made in 1852. The artist is Utagawa Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e.

Characters from Plays as Merchants and Customers, from the series Flourishing Business in Balladtown. Wikipedia Commons.
Characters from Plays as Merchants and Customers, from the series Flourishing Business in Balladtown. Wikipedia Commons.

Also, during the Meiji era, the maneki-neko was referred to in a newspaper article dated 1876. The good luck charm became a popular commercial product at about the beginning of the 20th century as indicated by advertisements in 1902.

The legend

This good luck charm started in a legend as told in Japanese folklore which believes that cat friends have protective powers and bring good fortune.

According to this folklore, a 17th century monk lived in the small Gōtoku-ji temple in Setagaya, Tokyo with his pet bobtailed cat. One day a Lord Samurai visited; Ii Naotaka of the Hikone Domain.

While he was there a storm forced him to take shelter under a tree outside the temple. He noticed the monk’s cat with one paw raised as if to beckon him to come inside the temple. He got up and moved towards the cat and shortly afterwards a bolt of lightning struck the tree where he had been standing.

He believed that the monk’s beckoning cat had saved his life and became the patron of the temple. He helped to repair it and improve the accommodation for the poor monk.

When the cat died a statue of maneki-neko was made to commemorate his life. That location is considered sacred today and visited.

A myth is a fictional story while a legend is based on fact. We don’t know if the legend described is a myth. My thanks to the Daily News (via HT Media Ltd.).


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