Lucky Cats of Japan: Decoding the Secrets of Maneki Neko

by Nana Young
This landmark serves as a popular meeting point and photo spot at Osu shopping street in Nagoya,Japa

Let’s get into the story of the globally recognized lucky cats of Japan. Find out why they always have one hand raised, why they’re so common behind cash registers, and how they became keychains, pots, piggy banks, and the like. The maneki neko beckons!

Introduction to Maneki Neko: Japan's Symbol of Good Fortune

Maneki-neko, (or Lucky Cats, or Beckoning Cats, or Fortune Cats) statue with Autumn Leaves inside Gotokuji temple (Neko temple) in Tokyo, Japan.

Maneki neko is a popular Japanese figurine depicting a cat with one paw raised. The raised paw resembles a beckoning gesture, and as a result, the figurine is also known as “the beckoning cat.” According to Japanese culture, maneki neko is a popular talisman believed to bring good luck and prosperity. Hence, it’s fondly called the lucky cat of Japan.

Although there are no restrictions on the kind of cat that can be represented with the maneki neko statue, the calico Japanese Bobtail is the most traditionally accurate and common breed. The figurine can come in a variety of colors, including white, red, black, and gold. It can also be crafted in various styles. Colors and styles do not make the maneki neko. What matters most is that the figure must be that of a cat holding a koban (oval gold coin) and beckoning with one paw.

When it comes to the symbolism of the lucky cat, Japan has some deep-rooted beliefs, as it is considered a talisman for bringing good fortune to its owner. Hence, you’ll find large statues on the premises of a variety of businesses, such as restaurants, laundromats, shops, hotels, and bars.

These days, statues of maneki neko are ceramic or plastic in nature. The talisman also takes other forms, including keychains, pots, and kettles. It has slowly transformed from an ancient talisman into a global icon.

History of Maneki Neko: Origins and Evolution

Maneki Neko Feng Shui japanese lucky cats: red for good health, yellow for wealth and pink for love and romance

We can trace the roots of the maneki neko all the way back to Edo-period Japan (1603–1868). Many historians believe that they made their first appearance in one of three Buddhist temples located in Edo (now Tokyo): Gotokuji, Jishoin, or Saihoji. We’ll reveal more about some of the common origin stories later in this post.

The figurines began selling commercially around the 19th century, mostly in the form of doll cats sold at stalls and shops. There was mass production of these dolls during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and they became popular nationwide.

The 20th century saw creators of the maneki neko make adjustments to their designs and depictions to incorporate a bigger head and a coin. Before the end of the century, the talisman had gained popularity in other Asian countries, particularly China.

Maneki neko became a Japanese cultural icon and global phenomenon in the 21st century, making appearances in several pop culture media. For instance, the beloved Pokemon, Meowth, is a maneki neko with a koban on its forehead.

Symbolism of Maneki Neko: Understanding Its Meaning and Significance

Japanese fortune cat animal doll called Manekineko at Kappabashi, Tokyo, Japan

There is some deep symbolism associated with different aspects of the maneki neko. We’ve compiled a quick guide to help you understand the different meanings of each aspect.

  • Raised paw: The Japanese lucky cat can have either its right paw or left paw raised, and both styles have different meanings. The raising of the right paw symbolizes more money or wealth for the owner. It’s typically associated with good fortune for a home. A raised left paw symbolizes more customers for the owner. This style is more useful for businesses; you’ll find it in shops, restaurants, hotels, and other ventures. A cat with both paws raised invites both money and people.

  • Color: The color of the figurine is a highly symbolic feature. The white talisman symbolizes good luck; the red one represents good health; the pink is for romance; the yellow or gold is for wealth; and the black wards off evil.

  • Koban: The koban is the oval-shaped coin in the hands of most maneki neko. It represents money and material possessions.

Maneki Neko Legends: Tales of Fortune and Feline Wisdom

Maneki Neko cat with colorful bokeh background

Many popular legends and folktales surround the maneki neko, each one highlighting its role in bringing luck, wealth, and protection to its owners. The majority of these legends are about the stories of how maneki neko originated, which has several versions.

The Folklore of Ii Naotaka and the Beckoning Cat

One of the common beliefs is that a beckoning cat saved a lord samurai called Ii Naotaka from a thunderstorm by leading him into the Gotokuji temple. The grateful samurai made huge donations to the temple, which had been struggling financially, effectively saving it. Statues of the beckoning cat were erected, and it soon became the symbol of the temple. Although the story about a strange cat leading a samurai into a temple is the most popular version, there are others.

The Legend of the Courtesan

There’s the legend of the courtesan named Usugumo. She lived in Yoshiwara with a cat. One night, the courtesan’s cat began to act in a strange manner. It followed her around and tugged at her skirt repeatedly. This behavior caught the attention of the owner of the establishment in which she worked. Believing the animal to be cursed, he cut off the head of the cat. The severed head flew to the ceiling and killed a venomous snake that had been lurking in the rafters all along. It became clear that the cat was only trying to alert its owner of the snake’s presence. The grieving Usugumo became inconsolable and a customer decided to cheer her up by making a wooden statue of her deceased cat. This was the first maneki neko.

The Tale of the Old Woman

There lived a poor old lady in Imado who had to sell her cat to buy food. Soon after, the cat she sold appeared to her in a dream and told her to create a statue in its likeness out of clay.  The woman did as she was told, creating the statue with a raised paw. She later sold this statue for a lot of money. News of her artistic talents spread far and wide, and people paid her to make more for them, which she did, making a fortune in the process. Her works were the first maneki neko.

The Folklore of the Warlord

Ota Dokan was a warlord in the Muromachi period (1336–1573) who lost his way during a fierce battle against the people of Toshima. A beckoning cat appeared to him and led him to the Jishōin Temple. Ota Dokan was able to win the battle after this happened. To show his gratitude, he created a sculpture in the likeness of the cat and donated it to the temple. This is considered by many people to be the first ever maneki neko.

The Story of the Shopkeeper

One day, a shopkeeper let a starving stray cat stay in his store. This was a special gesture because the store barely made any sales and the shopkeeper barely had enough money to feed himself. Thankfully, the cat sat outside the store and beckoned to passersby. Its ingratiating feline qualities caused many customers to visit the store they once ignored, leading to massive sales. Today, the beckoning cat remains one of Japan’s biggest symbols of good luck for businesses.

Types of Maneki Neko: Exploring Different Designs and Variations

Colorful statues of lucky cats. A shop in Tokyo to specialize in maneki-neko, Koide Shoten

Several versions of the maneki neko differ from each other by design, pose, color, or composition. During the Edo period, a lot of 18th-century maneki neko figurines were made of wood and colored black. These variants were believed to protect their owners from evil while bringing them good fortune. In the same period, many others were made of ceramic material, especially Imado ware. As the years went by, other kinds of maneki neko emerged, including those made from ceramics, stone, porcelain, cast iron, and other metals.

Modern versions of the figurine have created multiple new genres of maneki neko. These can be as complex as battery-powered statues with motorized arms that make actual beckoning motions or as simple as keychains and piggy banks.

Maneki Neko Colors: Meaning and Symbolism

Closed-up of tiny handmade pottery of Maneki-neko, the lucky cat and Japanese money on dark background

Each color of maneki neko invites a different kind of luck. Here’s a quick rundown of the symbolism behind the various colors of the lucky cats:

  • White: This is the most popular maneki neko color. It invites overall good fortune and every kind of luck.

  • Red: This variant invites good health and long life. Red lucky cats were popular at a time when smallpox was a deadly disease believed to be the work of demons who hated the color red.

  • Yellow or gold: It’s a money cat that invites good fortune, riches, and wealth. 

  • Pink: The pink cat talisman grants your wishes for romance. Many believe the pink maneki neko with a raised left paw is more effective for granting fulfilment in love.

  • Black: This protects you from evil spirits and brings peace to your household.

  • Blue: This invites peace and happiness.

Maneki Neko Superstitions: Beliefs and Traditions

Maneki Neko-Japanese ceramic doll in White color and believed to bring good luck to the owner.

Next, we’ll explore common superstitions and beliefs surrounding the maneki neko to help you learn the dos and don’ts of the Japanese tradition.

  • The maneki neko likes its owner to pet it regularly, just like a real cat.

  • Placing the welcoming cat at a level higher than people’s height is considered good for its effectiveness.

  • Do not place it in an enclosed space, such as a closet.

  • You need to take unwanted maneki neko to a shrine or temple for ceremonial disposal or cover it with salt before disposing of it.

  • Avoid being violent or careless when disposing of it.

Maneki Neko in Modern Culture: Popularity and Adaptations

Manekineko Karaoke in Japan

Compared to other icons of Japanese culture, the maneki neko can be considered a recent phenomenon. However, it already has an enduring popularity in modern culture, leading to countless appearances in art, entertainment, and advertising.

The story of Ii Naotaka and Gtoku-ji Temple served as the source of inspiration for Hikone City's mascot, Hikonyan. Also, one of the biggest karaoke chains in Japan is named Maneki Neko. Similarly, there’s a place known as Beckoning Cat Street located in Tokoname City, Aichi Prefecture, where you can experience the best maneki neko culture in the country.

In Japan, September 29 is generally celebrated as Maneki Neko Day. Different communities and business organizations celebrate the day by hosting special events and festivals in honor of the Japanese lucky cats. Today, one of the world’s most recognizable maneki neko is a character in the Pokemon franchise called Meowth. 

Maneki Neko Around the World: Global Symbols of Luck

Japanese maneki-neko ceramic cat figurine on a red pillow in a store in USA

Outside of Japan, China is the biggest adopter of the lucky cat culture. The country embraces the same symbolism and appearance for the figurines. These cats are so popular that they’re abundant in Chinatowns in the United States among Chinese communities. Hence, a lot of foreigners think the lucky cats originated in China. Many other countries have adopted the collection and display of beckoning cats. For some, these ceramic cat statues decorate their households and nothing more, but there are people who understand their cultural value.

The Maneki Neko Legacy: Wishing Good Fortune to All

Many amulets of Maneki neko

As a beloved symbol of luck, prosperity, and goodwill in Japan and beyond, the maneki neko is fast becoming the most appealing talisman in the world. Whenever you get the opportunity to bring these friendly spirits to your household, we recommend that you do. Who knows? It may bring you good luck, peace, romance, and prosperity.

Visit Bokksu Boutique for more iconic cat-related products that you can keep at home or send to loved ones as gifts. We recommend the Cat Lover's Box for a cute or romantic gesture, the Cat Glass for casual or formal gifting, and the Nekocha Green Tea for a health-conscious present.

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