Japan for the Uninvited

Japanese culture from a bemused foreign perspective

Maneki neko (Lucky cats)

Maneki nekoManeki neko (“Beckoning” or “Welcoming” cats) are ceramic sculptures often found in the windows of restaurants and shops. To many Westerners, the cats appear to be waving, but they are actually beckoning customers into the shop (Japanese body langauge for “come here” has the palm facing out, rather than in).

Different meanings

Most traditional maneki neko are white with black and orange blotches, which is considered the luckiest combination. Other colors have special powers of their own, like black (wards off evil – popular with women wishing to avoid stalkers), red (keeps sickness and other evilness at bay), and pink (brings love).

A right paw up is supposed to attract wealth, while a raised left paw draws people (customers or visitors). Left paw maneki nekos are also common in bars and other places that sell alcohol – left-handedness is associated with strong drinkers in Japan.

Origins

Maneki nekos first began appearing in the beginning of the Meiji era (late 19th century). Noone knows how or why the tradition started, but there are numerous theories:

  • When the Meiji government decided to clean up Japan’s sex districts by banning overtly sexual advertising and signage, brothels decided to use alluring kitties instead of welcoming ladies.
  • The figures were produced in honour of a cat that saved a lord by beckoning him away from a tree just before it was struck by lightning.
  • A wooden version was carved to console a courtesan whose cat had been beheaded by an over-zealous samurai.
  • Poverty forced an old woman to give up her cat. Later, the cat visited her in a dream, and inspired her to make clay figurines, which she sold to make her fortune.
  • A ramen stall gained an edge over its competitor by putting the little cat in its window.
  • The cat might not be beconing, but cleaning itself. According to an old Chinese saying, “If a cat washes its face, a visitor will come.”
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