Maneki Neko - The Japanese Beckoning Cat

Maneki Neko collection
Miduho Matsumiya / Getty Images

An old Japanese tradition, the Maneki Neko has become a popular collector's item all over the globe.

Not only is the Maneki Neko a lovable figurine for collection, its story is fascinating. There are many legends of its origin, and superstitions abound about the Beckoning Cat.

One of the more popular legends centers around the period (17th century), when a priest of a temple in the western part of Tokyo chided his pet cat for not contributing to the temple, which was quite dilapidated.

One day, soon after, Naotaka Ii, who was the lord of Hikone district (western part of Japan near Kyoto), was standing under a tree in front of the temple, seeking protection from rain, when he noticed that a cat was inviting him into the temple. As soon as he left the shelter of the tree to enter the temple, the tree was struck by lightening. Naotaka, of course, grateful to the cat (Tama), adopted the temple for his family, and bestowed his gratitude to the priest by helping the temple prosper. After his death, Tama was buried at Goutokuji's cat cemetery with much respect and honor, and the Maneki Neko tradition began.

Another legend tells of a famous Geisha of the Edo period, named Usugumo, who loved cats and kept her own at her side constantly. It seems one evening her cat insistently pulled at the hem of her robe, and after some period of frustration, she called for help. An admirer rushed to her side and cut off the head of the cat, thinking it to be a goblin cat.

The cat's head flew to the ceiling and bit the huge snake that was hovering over Usugumo. Usugumo mourned deeply the cat who had sacrificed its life for her, and in consolation, one of her guests presented her with an image of the hero cat made of aromatic wood. That image, of course, was the Maneki Neko, and its raised paw was trying to alert her to danger.

There are many more legends, and the most popular of the bunch are to be found at the Maneki Neko Club. There are also interesting stories about the traditions of displaying the Maneki Neko. According to one story, the Japanese, who treasure good luck charms, put the Maneki Neko in the front of their store to attract customers and/or good fortune. Tradition says that the left paw beckoning invites customers, while the right paw welcomes fortune or money. Of course, there's nothing wrong with hedging your bets by having one of each.

Another interesting bit of trivia is that in Japan, the Beckoning Cat shows its "palm" outward, to simulate the way the Japanese beckon. However, the "Dollar Cat," made for export, shows the back of the paw outward, to represent the beckoning gesture in European countries and America. Thus, commerce has a way of taking care of cultural differences, to please all collectors.

Maneki Neko, like live cats, come in all variations of colors. Among the most popular are the Tri-colored figures. Because male calico cats are rare, they are revered as "lucky cats" among sailors around the world, and among Maneki Neko collectors. Other popular colors are white, representing purity, black, to ward off evil (read black cats & witchcraft), and red, pink or gold.

The Beckoning Cat is always adorned with a red ribbon around its neck, holding a bell on the front.