Written by Sheeva H. & Edited by Tony Pham
We have all seen the cat figures sitting in the windows or on shelves of different stores and restaurants, but many of us may not have questioned its origin or complete significance. The maneki neko (招き猫), or the beckoning cat, is the name given to all those little cat figurines, which have one paw raised while the other holds an item, most commonly a coin.
This article will be focusing on the maneki neko and the stylistic features of it, such as the posture, color or the item it carries. It is very hard to set an exact standard on what each symbol, posture or color may represent when it comes to the figure. Different people, families and manufacturers may all have different interpretations on the different styles of the figures. For this reason, while mentioning some of the more commonly observed traits and representations, it should be known that a great deal of controversy may be found from other sources.
In general, most of these cats are created to depict a Japanese Bobtail. They are often created out of porcelain, but can also be found made out of a variety of material including wood, clay or even paper maché. In terms of the color of the bobtail cat, the most common one to see is the standard calico cat. It is tri-colored and generally depicted as a white cat with two-colored spots. While different people and manufacturers interpret all the colors differently, this particular cat is most commonly perceived to be the luckiest of all the colors. Following the calico cat comes the white cat, recognized as a symbol for purity and good things to come. A few of the other colors include the following: black cats to ward off evil; red cats to signify luck in relationships and marriage; green cats to represent health and/or educational success; gold cats to signify wealth; and pink cats, which are a more modern color, to represent luck in relationships.
If you have seen many of these good luck charms, you may have also had the chance to notice cats holding up either their left or right paw, or in some cases, both. For some, this can signify different things, and for others, it may not signify anything at all. In general, it is thought that the left paw is used to attract customers to the store, while the right paw is for attracting money and good fortune. For this reason, maneki neko with their right paws raised are used for piggy banks. Others, however, may say that the two paws signify the opposite: that the right paw attracts customers and the left paw attracts money and good fortune. Others will argue that the two are very closely correlated because customers bring money. In the case of having both paws raised, the cat is often thought to be, as one may have guessed, inviting both customers and money. Another significant factor that may be overlooked is the height at which the paw is raised. The higher the paw, the more luck the cat will bring. Finally, there is one more aspect to the paw that comments on the cultural differences between Japanese and Western cultures. In Japan, the beckoning action is done with the palm facing forward, mimicking the way the cat was made to look. Within Western cultures, the beckoning action is done with the back of the hand facing forward, moving the hand in a motion to bring someone closer. For this reason, a more Western style of maneki neko has been created, depicting a cat showing the back of his paw.
As mentioned before, the beckoning cat is most often seen holding a coin, which is known as koban (小判). Around the time the maneki neko came into existence, the coin that it now holds, the ryou (両), had a large monetary value to it (around one thousand American dollars). Nowadays, the cat is shown holding a larger amount. Another item that one of these cats may be seen carrying is a hammer, known as the Uchide no Kozuchi (打ち出の小槌), used to represent wealth. This “miracle mallet”, when shaken, is said to bring the person whatever they wish for, in this case, money. In some cases, you may see a maneki neko holding onto a fish, most likely a carp; a daruma (達磨), a Japanese paper maché doll (to learn more about the daruma please click here [not yet available]; or an ema (絵馬 prayer tablet)[not yet available].
The final aspects of the maneki neko to take into consideration are the collars, bells, and bibs that can be found on many of the cats. To better understand the existence of these items, one must look back a bit into history. In the past, during the Edo period, these forms of cats were quite expensive and most women would give them a red collar. The cats would also have a bell to help the owners keep track of their cat’s location. This trend from the past has seemingly been passed down to the maneki neko figurines, as many cats can be found to have a red collar adorned with a bell. The bib on a maneki neko can vary in extravagance, from the very simple to the very elaborate. These bibs may be something purely ornamental (as some toy animals in Japan also have bibs), or for some they may have more of a religious significance. This is yet again another factor to the maneki neko whose significance can truly vary depending on an individual person's own belief.
As you can see, there is quite a great deal more to a maneki neko than what one might first believe. The combination of color, item, and the orientation of the paw can all alter the meaning of a particular maneki neko. Perhaps now you may be interested in purchasing a little cat of your own, maybe to boost your own luck in a particular area of life. These cats can be found in many sizes from basic key chains to the figures that you see in restaurants and businesses, and maybe there is one cat out there that is right for you. If you are interested in reading more of the history of these cats and some of the legends about their existence, please feel free to view this article [not yet available].