If you’ve ever been to Japan or other parts of Asia, you’ve probably seen the small maneki-neko ornament waving at you from store windows and restaurants. Also known as the welcoming cat, lucky cat, money cat, happy cat, and beckoning cat, the maneki-neko figurine is believed to bring good fortune to businesses. Today, the kitsch cat is now recognizable all over the world, but the iconic lucky charm dates back to the 17th century and has a fascinating backstory.
What is the maneki-neko?
The maneki-neko is a popular Japanese figurine that is believed to bring good luck and fortune to its owner. Usually made from ceramic or plastic, they depict a Japanese Bobtail cat with its paw raised in a beckoning gesture. Its paw moves back and forth in a swinging motion, and some even have motorized arms so that they can wave all day long. Maneki-neko are typically displayed at the entrances of businesses—such as restaurants, bars, and laundromats—in order to entice customers to come inside.
Features of the Maneki-Neko
Maneki-neko are typically depicted seated and holding a koban coin, an oval gold coin from Japan’s Edo period. It features the phrase, sen man ryou (千万両), meaning 10 million gold pieces.
In Western culture, the beckoning gesture involves sticking your index finger out from your clenched fist, with your palm facing your body. The finger moves repeatedly towards yourself (like a hook) as it attempts to draw someone nearer. However, in Japan, the same inviting gesture is made by holding up the hand, palm down, and repeatedly folding the fingers down and back. This is why the maneki-neko’s hand faces down. The cat’s raised arm can be either its left or right, depending on what its owner wants. If its left arm is raised, the maneki-neko is inviting more customers, while the right paw raised invites wealth and money.
Maneki-neko also come in different colors, depending on the type of good fortune the owner is trying to obtain.
What do the different colors represent?
- White: Happiness, purity
- Black: Safety, wards off evil spirits
- Red: Protection from illness
- Gold: Wealth and prosperity
- Pink: Love and romance
- Blue: Success in education
- Green: Family safety
Where did the maneki-neko come from?
Due to its popularity in Chinatowns, the maneki-neko is frequently mistaken for being Chinese. However, the figurine is believed to have first appeared during the later part of the Edo period in Japan. The exact origins of the good luck charm is still unknown, but one of the earliest records of the figure appears in Utagawa Hiroshige's ukiyo-e woodblock print from the series, Flourishing Business in Balladtown (Jôruri-machi hanka no zu), made in 1852. It depicts the Marushime-neko, a variation of maneki-neko, being sold at Senso temple, Tokyo.
During the Meiji era the maneki-neko was mentioned again in a newspaper article dated 1876. And there is also evidence that kimono-clad maneki-neko were distributed at a shrine in Osaka during this time. And in 1902, an advertisement for maneki-neko indicates that the good luck charms became popular commercial items around the beginning of the 20th century.
The Legend of the Japanese Lucky Cat
In Western culture, domestic cats make great pets. But in Japanese folklore, feline friends have protective powers and symbolize good fortune. Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that the maneki-neko is believed to represent one particularly legendary cat.
According to folklore, a poor, 17th-century monk lived in the small Gōtoku-ji temple in Setagaya, Tokyo with his pet bobtail cat. They lived a quiet life, until one day a lord samurai, Ii Naotaka of the Hikone Domain, visited the area. While he was on his way to hunt, a huge storm erupted, and the lord took shelter under a tree outside the temple. While there, he noticed the monk’s cat with one paw up, appearing as though he was waving to him to come inside the temple. As he moved towards the cat, a lightning bolt struck the tree where he had just been standing. Naotaka was so grateful to the cat for saving his life, that he became the patron of the temple. He helped to repair it and make more space for the poor monk. When the cat died, a statue of maneki-neko was made to commemorate its life, and the location continues to be considered sacred today. And this story is why many people believe the beckoning cats are symbols of good fortune.
Where to Find Maneki-Neko
Maneki-neko figurines can be found in shops and businesses across Japan and beyond. However, if you want to see how they evolved throughout the ages, the Manekineko Museum of Art in Okayama showcases a collection of more than 700 lucky cat statues from history.
The beckoning cats are also celebrated every year in September during the Manekineko Festival in various cities across Japan. Maneki-neko events appear all over the country, and people flock to the streets with their faces painted like cats.
There’s also a Manekineko-dori Street (“Beckoning Cat Street”) in Tokoname City, Aichi Prefecture, where dozens of ceramic cat statues decorate the street. And of course, Gōtoku-ji Temple—where the legend of the lucky cat began—is home to hundreds of the figurines.
If you can’t make it to Japan, those in the U.S. can visit Ohio’s Lucky Cat Museum in Cincinnati, where you’ll find over 2,000 versions of the iconic feline figure.