I always thought the lucky cat was cute but a little tacky. You see them in restaurants sometimes, just near the entrance or in a window, made of plastic or ceramic, sometimes battery powered and waving a single paw up and down. I always wondered where it came from. Is it a legendary creature? There are legends about the statue’s origin, but in the end it turns out the stories are ‘just’ about a famous cat. There are many superstitions associated with cats in Japan so ‘just’ is not quite accurate.
Maneki Neko, the beckoning cat, the welcoming cat, or the lucky cat. Though in the modern day this symbol of prosperity is popular in both Chinese and Japanese communities, it originated in Japan,during the Edo period. Maneki Neko caries Koban, gold coins that were used as the currency of the period.
There are three stories associated with its origin:
In one story, a poor priest kept a cat as his companion, treating him well, even though he could hardly afford to feed himself. One day during a storm, a rich lord saw the cat sitting in the entrance to the temple, waving as if beckoning him to enter, and as he entered, the tree he had been standing under was struck by lightning. He believed the cat was an incarnation of a god or a lucky spirit, and in thanks endowed the temple generously. The cat was honored with a statue.
Another story features a geisha who loved her pet cat. One day the cat would not let go of her skirt, and she asked for help, because she could not chase it away. The owner of the house cut off the cat’s head (*see superstitions about cats) and its head flew up into the rafters and killed a snake that might have bitten her. She was presented with a statue of the cat that sacrificed it’s life for her.
The third story is about a poor woman who loved and cared for her cat. The cat appeared in a dream and instructed her to create his image in clay. These she sold and was saved from poverty.
- The Legend of Maneki Neko (legend of the Gotokuji Temple)
- Three Bobtail Tales (three origin stories for the lucky cat)
- *Maneki Neko (historical notes and superstitions about cats in Japan)
- Photos of Gotokuji Temple and its many cats.
Region of Origin: Asia, Japan