The “waving cat” is a type of statue that is extremely popular throughout Asian countries, especially in Chinatowns and Asian stores around the world. But contrary to the misconception of many people, these cute figurines are not Chinese at all, but they come from Japan. It also has far more diverse meanings than we think.
The origin of wagging cats
Dubbed Maneki-neko in Japanese, which literally means “waving cat,” this statue isn’t actually waving. In Japan, unlike in Western cultures, the way to welcome someone to you is with the palm facing forward, fingers facing down.
Legend has it that the lucky cat statue originated from the Gōtoku-ji temple in Setagaya ward, Tokyo during the Edo period (1603-1868). According to historians, during a falconry hunt, a daimyo (regional ruler) named Ii Naotaka was saved from a lightning accident by the quick reaction of the abbot’s pet cat. Grateful to the cat for saving his life, the ruler named him patron of the temple. A cat statue has been carved and housed in Gōtoku-ji Temple ever since.
In Tokyo’s Asakusa district, another story circulates. Lucky cats are said to originate from the Imado Shrine. In 1852, an old woman living in Imado was so poor that she could no longer feed her pet cat and was forced to let it go. That night, the cat appeared to the woman in the dream and said, “If you make dolls in my shape, I will bring you luck”.
Following the cat’s instructions, the old woman made small cat figurines and brought them to the gate of the Imado shrine to sell. The cat kept his promise, the ceramic figurines sold extremely well, helping the old woman get out of poverty.
Diverse meanings, not only to buy and sell expensive clothes
Whatever the exact origins of the Maneki-neko, one thing is for sure: These cats were believed by the ancient Japanese to bring good luck. Yoshiko Okuyama, a professor of Japanese at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, said: ‘The beckoning cats carry the myth that they can bring good luck to their caregivers. There is a Japanese proverb that says “If you kill a cat, it will haunt your family for 7 generations”. The Japanese have long had a folk belief that cats have a lifespan far beyond humans and have spiritual powers. If people treat cats well, they will also bring you luck.”
In her 1927 book Depicting Animals in Asian Art, researcher Katherine M. Ball said of the beckoning cat statue: “This image was used as an amulet to attract business. prosper and promote prosperity. It is found at every entrance to restaurants and shops, where cat statues are believed to lure guests in.
However, for a long time, in the land of cherry blossoms, Maneki-neko not only “waves to guests” but also has been assigned a variety of meanings, classified according to the color and characteristics of the statue. For example, blue statues for peace, pink for those who are looking for luck in love, yellow for money.
The meaning of this cat also changes depending on the raised arm: the right hand attracts money and luck; The left hand invites friendship and clients. This cat is also decorated with many accessories such as attaching a ryō (an oval Japanese coin) or a bib, a bell.
The popularity of the Maneki-neko cat statue
It remains unclear how these iconic statues were spread outside of Japan’s islands to become famous throughout Asia and the rest of the world.
According to a study by Bill Maurer, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine (USA), these statues date back to the Meiji period (1868-1912). The Meiji government issued the Public Ethics Ordinance in 1872. This law forbade people from using charms because it was considered superstitious. Maneki-neko are used as alternative decorations. It has gradually gained popularity and natural use, over the centuries.
Maneki-neko has also become a popular image and appears in art, fashion, and even video games. Japanese people still love this cat today. In Okayama Prefecture there is even a Maneki-neko Art Museum displaying a collection of more than 700 lucky cat statues from across the ages.
The cats are also honored every year in September during the Maneki-neko Festival held in various cities around the country. There is even Manekineko-dori (“Wanding Cat Street”) in Tokoname City, Aichi Prefecture, where dozens of ceramic cat statues decorate the streets. And in Tokyo, you can go to Gōtoku-ji Temple or Imado Shrine to visit the Maneki-neko statue display. In the US, we can also go to the Lucky Cat Museum in Ohio, Cincinnati, which has more than 2,000 statues of Maneki-neko cats.
Source: National Geographic