The maneki-neko (招き猫, literally ‘beckoning cat’, also known as lucky cat) is famous the world over. In English, the cat is mistakenly nicknamed the ‘Chinese lucky cat’, but make no mistake, the maneki-neko is a truly Japanese symbol, with origins right here in Tokyo (although some still insist it’s from Kyoto) in the Edo period.
The origin story
The lucky feline’s origins are shrouded in mystery. Quite a few tales exist, with the most common one involving a samurai who took shelter from the rain beneath a big tree across from a temple. The resident cat beckoned him with its paw; surprised by the movement, he walked towards it, and right then, a bolt of lighting struck the tree he had been standing under just moments before. The cat saved the day, and the samurai was so happy that he pledged allegiance to the temple, making it rich in the process.
Another variation tells of a shopkeeper who took in a cat caught in the rain, and the cat then sat by the entrance of the shop, beckoning customers in as a thank you. A less family-friendly account centres on Yoshiwara, the old red-light district of Edo–as Tokyo was known up until the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Back then it was apparently a thing to keep figurines of male phalli outside of a brothel, both as good luck charms and to make clear their line of work.
When Victorian values arrived along with the foreigners who blasted their way into Tokyo Bay at the time, the phallic figurines were promptly banned. In their place, apparently, rose the use of cat talismans... We’ll leave interpreting the innuendo up to you.
However, the most bizarre version revolves around a courtesan who adored her pet cat. The brothel owner, convinced the cat was possessed, cut off its head in an attempt to exorcise it, just as a snake was about to bite the courtesan. The moggy’s decapitated head flew through the air and landed on the snake, killing it instantly and saving the girl.
Although alive thanks to the cat and some fortunate physics, the courtesan was heartbroken by the loss. To cheer her up and commemorate her favourite pet, someone made her a little statue of the heroic feline and so the first maneki-neko was born.
Lucky cat variations
Nowadays, you’ll see maneki-neko everywhere, but if you take a closer look, you see that the little neko-chan (meaning ‘small or cute cats’ in Japanese) are not identical. Depending on their function, they may have a different paw raised, hold a different ornament, or be a distinct colour. Every variation has its own special meaning.
A maneki-neko holding an old Edo-style coin (koban, which was worth quite a bit back in the day) tends to be the most common one you’ll see at shops and restaurants, used as a charm to help usher in a bustling business. But various other objects in hand can also signify fortune, such as a fish, a gem, daikon, ingots... the list goes on.
You can also determine the cat’s function by its colour. The tricolour/calico cat – generally black, red and white, with spots on the elbows – is the standard version and considered the most lucky. Black maneki-neko is to ward off bad luck or evil spirits; gold is for money and wealth obviously; white for purity and happiness; red to guard against illness; and pink is to be lucky in love. Looking for a good match, either in business ventures or in love? The yellow cat might be able to help.
Whichever one you opt for, don’t go hiding it away in the cupboard – for optimal results, it needs to be somewhere visible.