The Japanese Maneki Neko Beckoning Cat Doll: A Popular Good Luck Charm from Japan

The Maneki Neko “beckoning cat,” is a common Japanese traditional good luck charm also known as the “welcoming cat,” “lucky cat,” or “kami cat,” which refers to its being an animistic deity. It is commonly made of ceramic or porcelain, and is sitting in an upright position with the left paw raised in a Japanese cultural beckoning gesture. The common style and most popular is a calico, tri-colored bobtail cat, but many other colors are made with suggested meanings behind each color.

Often the cat has a stylized gold coin in the front from the Meiji period, and the neck is adorned with a collar or neckerchief. The cat may also wear a bib or apron. Either paw can be raised with different assigned possible meanings; the left hand beckons customers or guests, the right calls for money or wealth. For Westerners, the figure is made with the paw raised in the opposite direction, with the back of the paw facing the front, the more common gesture of beckoning in the West.

Popular Use of the Charm

The Maneki Neko is often seen in restaurants, shops and pachinko game parlors, beckoning the customer to come inside and have good luck. It is also found commonly in the home and at temples and shrines. It is a very popular charm in Japan, throughout Asia, and is now becoming more a part of popculture worldwide. Other variations of the Maneki Neko include the Pokemon Meowth character and the Sanrio “Hello Kitty” merchandise as stylized forms of the beckoning kitty.

Origins of the Maneki Neko

The Japanese origin of the Maneki Neko, or “beckoning cat,” is believed to go back at least to the late Edo Period (1603-1867). During the Meiji era an 1876 newspaper of 1876 shows evidence that a Maneki Neko dressed in a kimono was distributed at a shrine in Osaka. By 1902, a newspaper ad shows that they had become a part of the popular culture.

The Gotoku-ji of Tokyo, the Buddhist temple where the legends are said to have begun, is still an active shrine for the Maneki Neko. Maneko Neko statues are found in abundance there and are central to the monks worship. Living cats are found throughout the temple site.

There are many legends about the origin of the Maneki Neko. In all of them, the cat saves the life of the person in the story. One story is of a nobleman passing by who sees a cat beckoning to him with his upraised paw. Curious, the nobleman stops and goes to the cat. He later realized that with his diversion he had avoided a trap that had been prepared for him. Since that time, the cat is known to be a lucky, wise and good kami, or Japanese deity. 

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