Quest for the lucky cat

maneki-nekoAnyone who has ever eaten at a Chinese food restaurant has probably seen a lucky cat. The statue cat with one raised paw often stands inside the entrance of Chinese restaurants and stores, welcoming or beckoning people in. I was surprised to discover that the lucky cat originates, not in China, but in Japan. There, it is called Maneki-neko, the beckoning cat.

Before I travelled to Japan last spring, I did some research about the origins of Maneki-neko. I came across a few different stories. One involves a cat who saved a geisha from a snake dropping on  her head. But the one that seems most accepted is about a cat who lived at a poor temple near the city of Edo (the old name for Tokyo) about 200 years ago.

The temple priest had a calico cat, who he was fond of and shared his meagre food with. One day the cat sat at the side of the road near the temple when it began to rain. At the same time, several samurai road up on horse back. They saw the cat raise its paw as if to beckon to them, so they followed the cat to the temple. The priest welcomed them in out of the rain and gave them tea. One of the samurai, Lord Li, was impressed by the priest, and later returned for regular visits. The lord and his family gave money to the temple, and it was never poor again. The story of the faithful cat, who brought luck and prosperity to the poor temple, spread across the land. Soon the first Maneki-neko statue appeared, and eventually the lucky statue spread from Japan to China and to North America.

I thought I might like to write a story for kids involving a statue of Maneki-neko (and perhaps a cat spirit who inhabits the statue), so on my trip to Japan I kept my eyes open for Maneki-neko statues and for real cats. My quest took me from a little antique store in the ancient town of Seki-cho, maneki-nekowhere the store owner showed me two Maneki-neko figures from the Meiji period (about 1900), to the backstreets of Tokyo, where a tiny shop was filled with lucky cats and real cats lounged up and down a market stairway, to a town beside the ancient shrine of Ise, maneki-nekowhere a giant stone Maneki-neko stood outside another store filled with lucky cats. Hello Kitty(Hello Kitty, or Kitty-chan as she is called in Japan, was also in evidence.)

After all this, the story I ended up starting to write is not about cats (although I may write the Maneki-neko story yet). Instead, it is about (or partly about) two other things I found myself looking out for in Japan: crows and manga. I will tell the you about the crows next.

8 Responses to “Quest for the lucky cat”

  1. Crafty Green Poet Says:

    We have a small lucky cat in our flat and although I vaguely knew the story behind it, I didn’t know the whole story – thanks for sharing!

  2. J-P Antonio Says:

    I think the maneki-neko is (maneki means “invitation”) is a good representative of the culture of commerce which is very popular and powerful in Japan. There are all sorts of amulets and helping spirits/gods that will assist you with your business here (especially if you throw a coin or two in the collection box at the temple). There is Ebisu-san and Daikokuten, two of the Seven Lucky Gods. Ebisu-san is a jolly looking guy wearing a sort of cap and carrying a large tai (sea bream, another lucky charm) under one arm and a fishing pole in the other hand. Daikokuten carries a large bag over his shoulder (lucky bag) and often stands on two bales of rice (rice is also a sign of prosperity). Many houses had small statues of these two in the past.

    In Osaka in early January there is a huge festival dedicated to Ebisu-san. It is one of the most enjoyable festivals I’ve been to. People from Osaka are famous for their business skills and flock to the festival at night to return their old prosperity amulets/charms and buy new ones to hang in the house or in the office. The streets around the temple are full of vendors selling different versions of the lucky rakes (rake in the good fortune), images of Ebisu-san, and myriad other magical items in gaudy colours. No wabi sabi here. You can choose one and pay for it and be on your way or you can do what a true Osakan does and haggle with one vendor and then another and then another until you’ve got a price you want. You might only have saved a few yen but that’s not the point. Through haggling, a relationship has been established between the buyer and the seller. The first time I witnessed this I was amazed and I had a lot of fun. Maybe it helped that I was also quite drunk.

    I think people everywhere like to compare. When I first came to Japan I made all sorts of comparisons. A lot of them have fallen by the side over the years but this one still stands. In Japan the maneki-neko, Daikokuten, Ebisu-san, the foxes that guard the Inari shrines and all the other characters populating the islands really do make a difference. Business isn’t just about the exchange of goods, the bottom-line, and profits here. It’s about belief. What sort of lucky charms/amulets/gods of commerce could Canada produce? A Canada Goose that lays a golden egg? What do you think?

  3. Heather Says:

    The beckoning cat is one of my favourite images. Thank you for the story! (My desktop image is one of J.P.’s photos of a beckoning cat in shadow.) And J.P.’s comment about what kind of lucky charms of commerce could Canada produce is very interesting. Look at the images we have on our money – hockey players, prime ministers and lots of wildlife – and old “Jock” on Canadian Tire money. Sometimes I feel that our culture is so unimaginative!

  4. dragonlife Says:

    Great pics and comment!
    Now, have you wondered why some cats raise their left paws, the others their right one?
    Cheers,
    Robert-Gilles

  5. Jacqueline Pearce Says:

    Apparently one paw welcomes people (customers and friends) and the other paw welcomes money or good fortune, but I always forget which is which (I think it’s the right for money and the left for people). The colour of the cat also makes a difference. Black is supposed to attract health, gold beckons riches, pink attracts love, etc. A calico is also considered lucky because male calico cats are rare. All that aside, there is something appealing and friendly about a welcoming cat statue, I think (although I have seen a few scary looking Maneki-nekos).

  6. J-P Antonio Says:

    The maneki-neko beckons again. I was looking through one of my old books about Japanese Folk Art (Mingei, Japan’s Enduring Folk Arts by Amaury Saint-Gilles) and I found an entry about the lovable cat that is quite different. Maybe it will interest you and your readers. I will just quote the whole entry.

    “The origin of this “good fortune” symbol is based on an actual incident. Around 1800, there existed outside the gate of the Ekoh-in Temple in Ryogoku, two similar tea shops. Business was neither good nor bad but the rivalry of the two shops was still intense. To attract customers, both shops had porcelain statues of a beckoning cat made for outside their entryways. One was golden hued and the other silver. Such an unusual feature were these two cats that they attracted much attention and were often mentioned in local publications.”

    “The owner of the one shop fronted by the golden cat was a layabout given to wasting both time and money. Were it not for the abilities of his charming wife, business would long before have faded to nothing. Needing money to pay her husband’s debts forced this lady to borrow from an admiring clothing merchant. But the money the merchant lent was not his and by giving it away thus, he brought ruin on his trusted friend.”

    “To atone for his mistake, he resolved to throw himself into the Sumida River from Ryogoku-bashi. As he rested against the bridge railing summoning up the courage, who happens along but his vainly loved lady. He reproached her for bringing him to this situation. On hearing the full tale she resolved to join him in shinju (double suicide) and join her lover on his journey into the other world. Over the bridge they went and the ensuing sensation caused by their dramatic deaths brought much fame to the shop of the golden cat and in turn economic ruin to its rival neighbour.”

    “The fortune “beckoning” abilites of the cat were soon picked up on by local hucksters apparently in collusion with temple authorities. It quickly became important to buy a small copy of this cat on the first dragon day of each month. A set of 48 collected cats over a four-year period was required for financial success. The hitch in this scheme was that if any misfortune such as a death occurred, the collected cats must be disposed of and a new collection begun. Ever try to go through a even a single year without some mishap that could well be construed as ‘misfortune’?”

    Well, this quite a different version. But it doesn’t quite explain how the shops came up with the idea to have beckoning cat statues in the first place. Maybe the story about the samurai lord and this one somehow fit together.

    All this drama for an innocent looking cat! Who’d have thunk it?

  7. Jacqueline Pearce Says:

    Correction: Actually, I think the original maneki neko was not a calico or tortoise shell but a Japanese bob tail (which has a short tail and calico-like markings?)

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