Meet Maneki-Neko: The Japanese Lucky Cat History
If you have ever visited a restaurant or shop in Chinatown, you have likely seen a gold or white cat statue with an arm raised. That’s a Maneki Neko cat. These ubiquitous cat figurines are often found by the cash register or near the entrance, seemingly waving at customers.
As common as the Maneki Neko cat may be in Chinese and other Asian stores, they are actually a Japanese tradition. Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t waving either — they are beckoning luck and good fortune to come in.
What Is the Maneki-Neko?
The Maneki Neko is an iconic Japanese figurine believed to invite good luck. When translated, Maneki Neko literally means “beckoning cat.” Its name is believed to be attributed to its paw raised high as if to call someone towards it.
In Japanese culture, beckoning someone over is done by raising your hand and moving the palm down repeatedly, while folding and unfolding the fingers.
The Maneki Neko is often made from ceramic or plastic. These cat figurines traditionally depicted a white Japanese bobtail cat holding a paw up to its ear. A Maneki Neko beckoning with its right paw invites wealth while beckoning with the left invites business or more customers.
If both of the cat’s paws are raised, it means it is providing or beckoning protection.
Maneki Neko is often displayed in homes and shops as a way to entice more luck, money, and prosperity. Some figures have manual or motorized swinging paws to keep bobbing up and down all day. Modern Maneki Neko cat figures now come in a variety of designs, but the general form remains the same.
The Eight Colors of the Maneki-Neko
Calico, white, and gold Maneki Neko are the most common variations of this figure. However, the Maneki Neko also comes in a variety of colors — eight, in fact. These colors are not simply for aesthetic purposes. Each of these colors has a specific lucky cat meaning or symbolism attached.
Here are the different attributes that each color represents or invites into our homes:
- White: Happiness, purity, and positivity
- Black: Safety or protection against evil
- Gold: Wealth and prosperity
- Red: Marriage, love, personal matters, and protection from illness
- Green: Education, health, and family safety
- Blue: Education, intelligence, wisdom, and success
- Pink: Love and romance
- Yellow: Stability, health, and relationships
Accessorizing the Japanese Lucky Cat
Many traditional white Maneki Neko found in Japanese temples are often plain white, with only simple red details, a red collar, and a gold bell. However, other versions, like the Maneki Neko commonly found in Chinese restaurants, hold more accessories.
Just like how each color of the Maneki Neko has a different lucky cat meaning, so do its many accessories and adornments.
Here are a few items commonly held or worn by the Japanese lucky cat:
- Koban coin: Many maneki neko are seen holding an oval gold coin with writing in the middle. This coin is a koban or gold coin used as currency during Japan’s Edo period. One koban coin is equivalent to one ryo or nearly $1,000 U.S. today.
The characters on the coin are often 千万両, meaning sen man ryou or ten million ryo. This represents great fortune. Maneki Neko displayed at shops sometimes hold a koban coin with 千客萬来 or sen kyaku man kai, meaning “1,000 customers come.”
- Carp or koi fish: The carp or koi is the most common type of fish seen with maneki neko. These fishes are believed to symbolize fortune and abundance.
- Money bag: This accessory represents luck and wealth.
- Marble or round gemstone: A marble or any other round gemstone in the maneki neko’s paws symbolizes wisdom and wealth.
- Fan or drum: Fans and drums are symbols of prosperity or luck in business. A taiko or Japanese drum, in particular, represents shops overflowing with customers.
- Drinking gourds: A hyotan or hollowed drinking gourd was traditionally used as sake containers. Fukurokuju, one of the Seven Lucky Gods of Japanese mythology, is depicted as using these gourds. They are used to symbolize good luck and to ward off evil.
The Legend of the Maneki-Neko
The legend of the Japanese lucky cat originated in the Edo period (1608-1868). The most popular legend tells of a young samurai lord whose life was saved thanks to a beckoning bobtail cat.
According to this tale, a monk was living with a pet bobtail cat at the Gotoku-ji Temple in present-day Setagaya Ward in Tokyo. One day, Ii Naotaka, a daimyo or regional ruler, was passing by the area when a storm came. He was taking shelter under a tree outside the temple when he saw the monk’s pet cat hold a paw up as if beckoning him inside.
Naotaka took the cat’s raised paw as an invitation and moved towards the temple. As he left the tree, a lightning bolt struck the tree. Relieved to have his life saved, Naotaka expressed his gratitude to the cat by becoming a patron of the temple.
Upon the lucky cat’s death, Naotaka commissioned a statue of the cat and had it displayed at the temple. To this day, Gotoku-Ji Temple is known as the birthplace of the Maneki Neko cat. Thousands of these figures holding their right paw up are displayed around the temple.
The First Japanese Lucky Cat in History
The first recorded depiction of the Maneki Neko cat was made towards the end of the Edo Period. In 1852, an ukiyo-e woodblock print in Utagawa Hiroshige’s “Flourishing Business in Balladtown” series showed a Maneki Neko seller in Senso Temple, Tokyo.
Specifically, the painting showed a marushime-neko — one of the older, Calico variations of the lucky cat figure.
The next recorded Maneki Neko in Japanese history came from a newspaper article during the early years of the Meiji era (1868-1912). It is also believed that Maneki Neko wearing kimonos were sold in an Osaka shrine during this time. By 1902, Maneki Neko was known to be popular item sold as good luck charms.
Making a Maneki-Neko Tour of Japan
If you are interested in making a Maneki Neko cat pilgrimage in Japan, then it’s best to start where the legend began — Gotoku-Ji Temple in Tokyo. Leave a Maneki Neko figure in the temple after wishing for good fortune, or take it home as a souvenir.
From Tokyo, you can visit the famous Manekineko-Dori. This street in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture is decorated with dozens of Japanese lucky cats. For a more historic perspective, you can visit the Manekineko Museum of Art in Okayama Prefecture.
As a state-side alternative, you can visit the Lucky Cat Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio instead. Here, you’ll find over 2,000 Maneki Neko cat figures on display and beckoning luck for all to see.