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Maneki Neko: Susan Lendroth's Tale of the Lucky Cat

Anyone who has been in a Japanese gift store has probably seen the adorable beckoning cat called Maneki Neko with its wide eyes and raised, waving paw. Many look upon these statues as loveable collectibles without ever being aware of the legend behind the iconic cats and why they are known for the good fortune they bring.

Susan Lendroth, author of Maneki Neko: The Tale of the Beckoning Cat, presents her own version of the folk tale without tampering with its traditional elements. Maneki Neko is essentially a children’s picture book, but its pages consist of so much more than that. The simple yet charming tale comes alive in the hands of the author and the book’s illustrator, Kathryn Otoshi. Like the cat, the author and artist beckon readers—young and old—within to discover more about traditional Japanese culture.

In researching the tale, Lendroth went to extensive lengths to find out everything she could about the history of Maneki Neko. In a recent interview with the Japanese American National Museum, she discussed how she uncovered more details about the folk tale in her travels to Japan. “Over the years I have traveled to Japan four times for work and/or vacation. I don’t recall when I first heard the tale behind the beckoning cats, but I remember researching how to find Gotokuji Temple in a suburb of Tokyo and taking three trains to get there. Gotokuji is supposedly where the original beckoning cat and her monk lived, and supplicants still hang Maneki Neko prayer plaques on temple grounds. Of course, finding the temple proved a challenge to me because my Japanese is nearly non-existent and there were no English signposts pointing the way when I went. I stood outside the train station asking ‘Maneki Neko?’ of passersby and posing like a cat with uplifted paw until I found someone to show me the way!”

One curious feature of the cat statues is the manner in which the cat beckons with its paw. Through her research, the author eventually uncovered the reason for this unusual trait. “It took me a while to figure out why the Maneki Neko is supposed to be beckoning to people when the palm (paw) faces outward. After all, if I gesture to someone to come to me, I hold my hand up with the palm facing me, waving my fingers towards me. I finally read somewhere that in Japan, the gesture is reversed—palm outwards, fingers waving up and down towards the person being called. Kind of how babies wave bye-bye in this country. Mystery solved!”

The idea for the book pairs the author’s interest in Japanese culture with her interest in folk tales. Asked why she feels it is important for legends to remain “alive,” particularly from a cultural standpoint, Lendroth responded, “I enjoy folk tales because they are like regional dishes, each flavored differently according to their countries of origin. Funny or fierce, lovely or lonely, they reveal not only the traditional stories behind a culture but how inhabitants of a country relate to one another, what they value, what is universal and what unique. I haven’t really researched any others though. I was attracted in particular to the Maneki Neko tale because it explained a popular icon. I wanted to keep my version as true to the original as possible, not ‘updating’ it as people often do with traditional stories. It had stood on its own merits for centuries, so who was I to change important details?”

Susan Lendroth currently manages public relations and events for the Planetary Society, a non-profit organization that was founded by Carl Sagan and advocates the exploration of the solar system. In addition to Maneki Neko, the author has written three other books: Why Explore? which addresses many kinds of exploration, from the physical to the scientific to archaeology; Ocean Wide, Ocean Deep, about a girl in the early 19th century waiting for her father to return from a trading voyage to China; and Calico Dorsey: Mail Dog of the Mining Camps, based on the true story of a dog that carried the mail between Calico, California and a nearby camp in the 1880s.

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Susan Lendroth will be reading Maneki Neko: The Tale of the Beckoning Cat and signing copies of the book at the Japanese American National Museum on January 2, 2011 at 1:00 pm as part of the Oshogatsu Family Day.

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