(Psst! Wordless Wednesday is at the bottom of the post 🙂 )
You may not know the name of these cats, but you’ve seen them around. Decorated cats, usually white, sitting with one paw raised in the air greet us at the entrance of most Chinese food restaurants and other Asian specialty stores. They are very popular in Asian countries – even sitting pretty at temple shrines. In English we would refer to one of these cats a “welcoming cat” or a “beckoning cat.” In Japan, the country of the cat’s origin, this cat is called “Maneki Neko.”
The Cat with Many Tales
Maneki Neko is believed to have originated back in the time when the Samurai ruled a feudal Japan (possibly the early 1800’s). There is no true documentation of any real event which resulted in the creation of Maneki Neko. There are, however, many folklore style accounts of the cat that inspired Maneki Neko.
Cat Tale #1: Almost Electrified
In the midst of a long journey a samurai leader decided to sit and rest under a tree belonging to a run-down temple. Looking toward the temple he saw a cat (named Tama) beckon him with her paw. Curious about the little cat, he got up and went to get a closer look at the cat. No sooner had the samurai leader walked over to Tama then a bolt of lightning crashed down striking the tree he had just been sitting under. The samurai credited Tama with saving his life and donated money to the temple. From that time on the temple was prosperous.
In a similar tale, a leader is called into the Gotokuji Temple by a cat just before it begins to rain. Thankful that he didn’t get wet, he gives donations to the temple and restores it. He goes on to create a second temple on the grounds called the Shobyo Temple and makes the cat the god of that temple calling it Shobyo Kannon. People would come and leave Maneki Neko as offerings at the Shobyo temple when their wishes came true.
Cat Tale #2: T.M.I.
Japan went through a time of economic isolation; there was no trade with other countries and very few outside visitors. During this time brothels and places of male entertainment were marked with representations of male genitalia. When Japan decided to move away from isolationism, their new western visitors were a bit embarrassed by the sight of male genitalia blatantly displayed in public. Wanting to make friends with the newcomers (they could bring lot of money to Japan), they replaced the statues of male genitalia with something a little more palatable – a cat raising one arm (apparently still seen as a bit of a phallic symbol).
Cat Tale #3: In Your Dreams
An old woman in the Tokyo area became so poor that she could not afford to keep her beloved pet cat. The old woman was terribly distressed by having to part with the cat. She let the cat go in great sorrow. One night as the old woman lay sleeping restlessly, the cat came to her in a dream. The cat told her that she could be happy again if only she would make a doll of the cat. When the old woman awoke, she began creating ceramic dolls in the likeness of her cat. These dolls were loved by all the people that came across them and the old woman decided to sell them. The sales of the dolls brought her much fortune and of course the happiness of seeing her cat everywhere she goes.
Cat Tale #4: Oh My Geisha!
Late one night at a brothel, a geisha awoke to use the bathroom. A cat stopped the geisha before she could get to the bathroom by pulling on her robe. When one of the men at the brothel saw the cat pulling on the geisha’s robe, he believed the cat was attacking her. The man drew his sword and lopped off the cat’s head with flew through the air and landed biting a snake that had been perched on the toilet waiting to attack the geisha. The geisha was very upset that the cat had been killed after seeing that it was protecting her. The man made a wooden statue of the cat in the geisha’s honor.
Symbolism: What Does It All Mean?
Maneki Neko is a symbol of luck, fortune, and prosperity. It is dressed as a pet of the wealthy elite would have been dressed during the Edo period. It has a gold coin around it’s neck and often holds coins and jewels all of which represent wealth.
If the right paw is raised, it invites money; If the left paw is raised, it invites people. When both paws are raised, it invites both money and people. In Japan, the “palm” of the cat is showing to represent beckoning in Japanese culture. Exports of Maneki Neko show the top of the hand rather than the palm to better represent what western countries see as beckoning. There are also those who say that the higher the arm is, the more luck that the Maneki Neko brings. Others say that the higher the arm is, the further distance your luck will come from.
Adding color to Maneki Neko is a slightly newer practice. The calico colored Maneki Neko is the most lucky. It is possible that this is because of how rare it is to see a calico colored Japanese Bobtail cat (the type of cat Maneki Neko is formed after). As one might expect, all white represents goodness and purity. An all black maneki Neko wards off evil. Gold represents money and fortune. Shades of red represent love and relationships.
In honor of the Maneki Neko post, I asked Cinco to try beckoning to all the lady cats out there. This is what I got…
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