Japanese American Traditions

Maneki Neko: Japan's Beckoning Cat

Visit any storefront or home of an American of Japanese descent and you're likely to be welcomed by the Maneki Neko, a popular symbol of prosperity and good fortune for many. Not only is the Maneki Neko a lovable figurine for collection, its story is fascinating. There are many legends of its origin, and superstitions abound about the Beckoning Cat.

One of the more popular legends centers around the Edo period (17th century), when a priest of a temple in the western part of Tokyo chided his pet cat for not contributing to the temple, which was quite dilapidated. One day, soon after, Naotaka Ii, who was the lord of Hikone district, was standing under a tree in front of the temple, seeking protection from the rain, when he noticed that a cat was inviting him into the temple. As soon as he left the shelter of the tree to enter the temple, the tree was struck by lightening. Grateful to the cat (Tama), Naotaka adopted the temple for his family, and bestowed his gratitude to the priest by helping the temple prosper. After his death, Tama was buried at Goutokuji's cat cemetery with much respect and honor, and the Maneki Neko tradition began.

Another legend tells of a famous Geisha of the Edo period, named Usugumo, who loved cats and kept her own at her side constantly. It seems one evening, her cat insistently pulled at the hem of her robe, and after some period of frustration, she called for help. An admirer rushed to her side and cut off the head of the cat, thinking it to be a goblin cat. The cat's head flew to the ceiling and bit the huge snake that was hovering over Usugumo. Usugumo mourned deeply the cat who had sacrificed its life for her, and in consolation, one of her guests presented her with an image of the hero cat made of aromatic wood. That image, of course, was the Maneki Neko, and its raised paw was trying to alert her to danger.

There are also interesting stories about the traditions of displaying the Maneki Neko. According to one story, the Japanese, who treasure good luck charms, put the Maneki Neko in the front of their store to attract customers and/or good fortune. Tradition says the left paw beckoning invites customers, while the right beckons fortune or money. The Maneki Neko comes in all variations of colors. Among the most popular are the tri-color (or calico) cats, considered as a lucky charm worldwide. Other popular colors are white (representing purity), black (to ward off evil and witchcraft), pink (attracts love), red (prevents illness), blue (luck at school and studies), or gold (good financial omen).

The Maneki Neko is traditionally adorned with a red ribbon around its collar holding a bell on the front, and is sometimes found wearing a bib or other neck adornment.

To learn more about the fascinating history and folklore of this beloved cat, read Lucky Cat: He Brings You Good Luck by Laurel Wellman. In addition, the Museum Store Online offers a number of unique products featuring this delightful feline:

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