Close your eyes and picture a small ornamental cat waving a raised paw. You’re probably envisioning maneki neko.
This welcoming cat is a familiar image for many, as it adorns the storefronts of countless Japanese establishments worldwide.
Keep reading to learn more about the cultural significance behind these adorable figurines.
What is Maneki Neko?
Maneki neko is a traditional Japanese figurine to cultivate prosperity, especially in business. It’s a traditional cat statue typically placed near the front of Japanese-owned businesses to greet and attract customers. Also referred to as the happy cat, the beckoning cat, the lucky cat, and the money cat, this good luck charm is part of a centuries-old custom.
Shop owners decorate their front spaces with the traditional cat in hopes of prosperity and good fortune and as a warm invitation for customers to enter.
The maneki neko statue is often white, but it can come in various colors, each with a special meaning.
Types of Maneki-Neko
The famous figurine cat, maneki neko, is thought to bring good luck, especially to business owners. Usually made of ceramic – sometimes wood, metal, plastic, and other materials, even jade or gold – it depicts a Japanese Bobtail cat.
Maneki neko comes in various styles, some delicate and ornate, others more kitsch or modern. They are often sculptures but can be depicted on everything from t-shirts and home accessories like clocks and air fresheners to miscellaneous items like piggy banks and key chains.
It’s not unusual to have numerous maneki neko on display. The figurines tend to be placed near the entrance of a business to entice new customers with their gestures. Each doll has details with specific symbolic meanings.
Waving Maneki Neko
This famed cat typically has one paw raised and swinging as if beckoning passersby. Some maneki neko have built-in electric or solar-powered motors to facilitate non-stop waving.
Westerners’ beckoning hand gestures typically involve an upward or self-facing palm. A front-facing, downward wave is consistent with and widely understood in Japanese culture to be a welcoming gesture.
Maneki Neko Arm Meanings
Sometimes maneki neko has the right arm raised to protect and attract wealth. The right arm is associated with money and good fortune. The left paw can be raised to invite happiness and entry, such as customers for a business or friends to a home.
It’s even an option for maneki neko figurines to have both paws raised and waving, acting as a protective totem. Some believe the higher the paws are raised, the more powerful the fortune-bringing gestures are.
Maneki Neko Features
The traditional maneki neko is seated, holding an oval-shaped gold coin called a koban. Maneki neko figurines tend to have red, pointed ears and carry various accessories. They often wear scarves, bells, or decorative bibs.
This coin was an early Japanese currency during its feudal Edo period and would still be valuable today. It’s yet another representation of welcoming wealth.
Items Maneki Neko Carry
While often used to drum up customers, they come in various variations, carrying items to call certain kinds of luck.
The items held and worn by maneki neko are each symbolic in the following ways:
- Collars and bells signify successful owners.
- Bibs are often red and worn for protection; this aligns with jizo statues seen in shrines and temples.
- Coins are oval and represent fantastic wealth.
- Carp fish are sometimes used to depict vigor and strength and can also be used to represent a fruitful bounty.
- Gems, stones, and balls denote wisdom and are also associated with money.
- A barrel of sake can be included for added luck and to ward off evil spirits.
- A shakeable hammer is said to shower wealth.
- The daikon radish is a large vegetable that symbolizes luck and wealth.
- Drums are correlated with an overflow of customers.
Maneki Neko Color Meanings
The maneki neko figurine comes in various colors, each representing a specific theme of good luck that business owners wish to invite.
What does each maneki neko color represent?
- White is associated with purity, positivity, and happiness.
- Black is used for protection from evil spirits.
- Red is said to safeguard against illness and promote good health.
- Gold brings prosperity and financial wealth.
- Pink attracts romantic good fortune and love.
- Blue traditionally invites wisdom and academic success.
- Green is tied to the health and protection of one’s family.
- Calicos, or tri-colored cats, are believed to be the luckiest of all.
Where Does Maneki Neko Originate?
According to Japanese folklore, cats carry protective qualities and represent good fortune. It’s not uncommon to see maneki neko displayed in other Asian cultures and regions, leading some to believe the fortuitous cat has Chinese origins mistakenly.
Maneki neko dates back hundreds of years to the Japanese Edo period, but its exact origin remains uncertain.
The Legend of the Lucky Samurai
One well-known story involves the pet bobtail cat of a 17th-century penniless monk, thought to be the inspiration for the original maneki neko.
A lord samurai visited the monk’s region and took shelter under a tree during a storm when he saw the now-famous feline sitting perched near the temple with a paw raised as if waving for him to enter. He stepped toward the temple just before the tree was struck by lightning.
The cat’s invitation saved his life, which led to his ongoing patronage of the temple, helping the poor monk with repairs. After the bobcat’s death, a statue of maneki neko was erected to memorialize it.
The Lucky Cat from a Dream
Another origin story tells of a poverty-stricken woman who released her pet cat, which she could no longer feed. Later, it came to her in a dream, promising good fortune if she crafted dolls in its image. The prophecy came true; she found success with the figurines, and a historic woodblock illustrated print of the lucky cat soon followed.
Cats have long been regarded highly in Japanese culture, and beloved pets are sometimes said to have mystical associations. It’s said that in caring for pets, we receive their care, too. Thus, it’s believed that good fortune comes to the caretaker.
Where to Place Maneki Neko
Shrines and museums dedicated to maneki neko provide evidence of the impression the celebrated cat has made. The beloved bringer of good fortune is honored in shrines and celebrations and continues to grace shops and storefronts everywhere to attract good business and luck.
The placement of a maneki neko doll is an important detail in Japanese culture. When placing maneki neko at home, it’s recommended to situate it in what’s known as the area of wealth – in the southeastern corner. When maneki neko are placed in the southeast corner, they’re believed to generate financial good fortune.
If the home has an office, this wealth-generating workspace and the fortune-bringing cat should be in or near this corner, with the cat facing southeast if possible.
Where to See and Learn More
The Buddhist temple site of the samurai origin story, Gotoku-ji, is still a sacred location, now populated with hundreds – if not thousands – of maneki neko figurines. The story has strengthened the long-held Japanese association with cats and good fortune.
People often leave maneki neko at Gotoku-ji as offerings and to make wishes, and mani neko can be purchased there as souvenirs.
Another famous site dedicated to the beckoning cat is Manekineko-dori Street, where an extensive collection of these ceramic cat statues is installed as public decoration.
Each September, a festival is held in maneki neko’s honor. Across Japan, residents paint their faces to look like cats and take to the streets to celebrate the beckoning cat.
Hundreds of historic maneki neko can be seen in Okayama’s Manekineko Museum of Art. Additionally, in Cincinnati, OH, enthusiasts can see thousands of the iconic figures of good fortune at the Lucky Cat Museum.
Maneki Neko’s Widespread Image
The well-known good luck cat can be seen everywhere, from temples to souvenir shops. It’s been used for generations and has evolved in appearance over the years. It welcomes customers into a wide range of businesses in Japan and beyond.
Even if you haven’t seen the customary sculpted lucky cats up close, they make countless appearances in pop culture, making them recognizable figures worldwide.
More recently, maneki neko can be seen with blue eyes holding US currency. This is evidence of the trend’s widespread popularity and is clearly intended to appeal to foreign visitors.
The lucky Japanese cat doll is also a touching way to wish someone well, making it a thoughtful gift. Depending on what type of luck you want to send the recipient, a specific-colored maneki neko can be given as a personal and caring gesture.
Traditionally, cats are considered lucky according to Asian folklore. Generally speaking, maneki neko bring fortune and luck to those who display them. Frequently placed near cash registers and front windows of Japanese restaurants and shops, they’re talismans of protection and invite wealth and prosperity.
Whether the lucky cat figurine stems from saving the life of a famous samurai or is a continued tribute to a cat apparition from a dream, legends of the fortune-bringing feline fuel the continued use of the charming ornament today.