Maneki-Neko: The History of the Asian Lucky Cat

A beckoning cat in a shopping street in Taipei

Upon entering a Chinese, Taiwanese or Japanese shop you may have noticed something that to Westerners seems quite unusual: a small pottery cat with a raised paw, which is known as “beckoning cat” or “lucky cat”. Due to the large number of Chinese immigrants in the West, some people believe that this beckoning cat was invented in China. In fact, the real name of this lucky charm is Maneki-Neko, and it originated in Japan.

Maneki-Neko (Japanese: 招き猫; Chinese: 招財貓 / 招财猫, pinyin: zhāo cái māo) literally means “beckoning cat”, and it is a symbol of money and wealth. The lucky cat is supposed to be propitious for business and attract customers.

According to a Japanese legend, in the 17th century there was a decaying temple in Tokyo, called Gotokuji, run by a poor priest. Yet despite his poverty, the priest shared the little food he had with his cat, Tama. One day, a wealthy landlord, Naotaka Ee, passed by the temple while hunting. At that moment, a thunderstorm broke out, and he found shelter under a tree. Then he saw Tama beckoning to him (when cats clean themselves or dry their wet nose or mouth, they look as if they were beckoning).

The landlord left the tree and rushed up to the temple. No sooner had he walked away from the tree that a lightning struck it. Naotaka believed that the cat had saved his life, and out of gratitude, he took care of the priest and Tama, and he helped the temple prosper. When the cat died, he was buried with respect and pomp in the temple’s courtyard, and the statue known as maneki-neko was made in his honour (Nakamoto 2011, p. 206).

A cute Japanese beckoning cat (source: Wikipedia)

It is believed that the maneki-neko became popular during the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), though it is not named in written documents. By the Meiji Era (1868-1912), however, the new technology of photography became a proof of its established function, as pictures of the cat figurine in shops and businesses of that time show (Moore / Choron / Choron 2007, p. 20).

According to one version, the first ones to use the maneki-nekos as lucky charms for business were brothels; in fact, the sex industry in the Edo period was booming, and establishments employed lucky charms to bring in more customers.

There are two different kinds of maneki-nekos: one with the left paw raised, the other with the right paw raised. The first invites customers into a shop, the second promises good luck (ibid.).

From Japan (whether via Taiwan, I wasn’t able to find out)  the maneki-nekos spread to China and are now a common sight in Chinese communities throughout the world.


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