How a Cat Became Japan’s Symbol of Good Luck

October 3, 2018


By Linda Cole

The Japanese legend of the beckoning cat called Maneki Neko dates back to the Edo period (1603-1867) in Japan. For most of the period it was a time of political stability, prosperity, peace and isolation under military dictatorship. The legend of Maneki Neko continued into the Meiji period and became more widespread and documented. This renowned cat is a symbol of good luck for the owner, but it appears there may be more to this story of the beckoning cat than just legend.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Maneki Neko (Japanese for “beckoning cat”), it’s a figurine of a cat with either the left paw or right paw raised as if beckoning or waving. You’ve probably seen one in a Japanese or Chinese restaurant or other businesses. The exact origin of when and where these small statues first appeared is lost in time. There are many stories surrounding the mystery, but one stands out as the most popular origin of Japan’s symbol of good luck.

The Story of Japan’s Lucky Cat

Gotokuji Temple sits in a serene area away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. In the early years of the Edo period, a small dilapidated temple stood in the same location. The temple was home to a poor monk and his cat, Tama. The monk adored Tama and treated the cat as a member of his family. The monk was just barely getting by and had no worldly possessions. Food was in short supply, but he gladly shared what he had with Tama.

One day a nobleman, Ii Naotaka, was returning home from a hunt when a thunderstorm blew up. He found shelter under a tree near the temple. While waiting for the storm to pass, he noticed a cat sitting in front of the temple waving. It surprised him to see the kitty beckoning him with a raised paw and he moved towards the feline. Just then a lightning bolt struck the tree where he had been standing. Grateful to the cat for saving his life, Naotaka entered the temple and befriended the monk. He became a benefactor and made the temple his family’s – bringing it much wealth. It was later said that Tama brought good fortune to the temple.

The temple was renamed to Gotokuji after Naotaka passed away and, according to legend, he and his family are buried in the temple’s cemetery. Tama was also given a place of honor in the cemetery after passing away. A statue of a waving cat was made to honor the legendary cat. Worshippers praying for success in business or for their lost or sick cats have constantly filled the Gotokuji temple with lucky cat figurines ever since, and the legend of Maneki Neko lives on.

Meaning of the Raised Paw

It is significant which paw is raised. A Maneki Neko sitting in a window or near the entrance of a business with the left paw raised is meant to invite customers in for a profitable business. A figurine with the right paw up is said to attract prosperity. Both paws raised represents protection. The right pawed Maneki Neko is the most popular one, especially for non-business people.

Meaning of the Different Colors

Calico is the traditional color and most popular one. Tama was described as a calico cat. This color is considered to be the most powerful and luckiest Maneki Neko. White with orange and black spots signifies happiness, purity and positivity. Green is for good health. Red brings success in relationships and love. Black is for protection against evil spirits, and gold brings wealth and prosperity.

Meaning of Decorations

There is always a decoration around the cat’s neck. It might be a scarf, bib or collar with a bell. It was common for wealthy owners to dress their felines in fine collars, and the bell was so they could keep track of their cat.

Each decoration a Maneki Neko is holding in its paws also has a specific meaning, as follows.

Gold Coin

This coin is called a koban and was worth a ryo. (Ryo was the currency used in Japan during the Edo period before it was changed to the yen). The golden coin a Maneki Neko holds is supposed to be worth ten million ryos.

Money Mallet

This small hammer represents wealth, and when shaken attracts wealth.

Fish

The fish, probably a carp, is a symbol of good fortune and abundance.

Marble or Gem

This is another good luck charm to attract money. It’s thought by some that the marble or gem is a crystal ball and signifies wisdom.

The spirit of Maneki Neko lives on today in pop culture. A Pokemon character (Meowth) and Hello Kitty are both based on Japan’s lucky cat statue.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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