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Have you ever seen a Maneki Neko? 🐱
In English, they are also called "Lucky Cats" because they are used as a kind of talisman or lucky charm. These whimsical cat figures have become one of Japan's best-known symbols.
The name "mankei neko" can be traced back to the cat's inviting paw, as the literal translation is "waving cat".
Lucky cats are usually made of ceramic, but they can also be made of all kinds of materials - from wood or plastic to luxurious lucky cats made of jade or gold. Even in modern times, maneki neko are still widespread in Japan.
It is not uncommon to see the statues in shrines or as decoration. You can also find their slowly waving mechanical paws welcoming you to restaurants, pachinko parlours and other places around the country.
The Maneki Neko comes in several colors, each with its own meaning.
Three-colored Maneki Neko
The most common is the tricolor cat. It is said that the tricolor Maneki Neko brings good luck to its owner.
White Maneki Neko
The White Maneki Neko, is supposed to bring happiness and calmness to its owner.
Gold Maneki Neko
If you get a gold Maneki Neko, it shall bring you great wealth.
Red Maneki Neko
The red Maneki Neko cat keeps illness away, especially for children.
Pink Maneki Neko
It is ideal for those who have a sense of romance because this cat is supposed to bring love into your life and strengthen a relation.
Green Maneki Neko
The green Maneki Neko should probably be given out during the first week of college as it is supposed to bring prosperity to your studies.
Black Maneki Neko
Perhaps the most fascinating of all the colors is the black Maneki Neko. While black cats in Western culture are considered a symbol of bad luck, the black Maneki Neko figurine is supposed to ward off evil spirits.
The shape of the Maneki-neko is based on the Japanese Bobtail. In Japan this breed is called Kazoku-neko (家族猫 "family cat"), the tricolor breeding form is called Mike-neko (三毛猫; literally "three-furred cat"). Like its model, the maneki-neko is stubby-tailed. It also features the distinctive upright ears of this cat breed.
Also typical of Maneki-neko figures is the predominantly red collar with a golden bell or decorated plaque on which is engraved the designation of what is to be attracted (for example, "luck," "clientele," or "money"). Alternatively, the Maneki-neko holds a gold coin with in its non-waving paw.
Maneki-neko figurines were originally made of painted and glazed pottery. Today they are still made of ceramics, but in the meantime the mass production of plastic prevails. Maneki-nekos are always designed in the same way, but their color can vary greatly. Models covered with gold leaf are also popular. There are also hardly any limits in size.
The color of the maneki-neko plays a major role: tri-color cats are considered lucky charms, which is why a tri-color maneki-neko promises especially good luck and prosperity.
A pure white Maneki-neko stands for purity and innocence, a black one wards off demons and stalkers and is very popular with women. A golden maneki-neko is said to attract wealth and a red one dispels disease. Finally, a pink maneki-neko is said to attract lovers.
Also significant is the gesture of waving. If the maneki-neko raises its left paw, it summons customers and visitors; if it raises its right paw, it promises good luck and prosperity.
The higher she raises her paws, the more customers/luck she is supposed to attract. There are also representations in which the cat raises both paws, but these figures are frowned upon, especially in Japan, because this gesture is considered excessive. Therefore, maneki-neko with both paws raised are rather rare.
From Thailand come gilded maneki-neko figures, which are hollow inside and equipped with a battery-operated mechanical apparatus that makes the raised arm of the cat swing up and down incessantly.
These permanently waving figurines in particular enjoy great popularity in the Western world. Nowadays, the battery is often replaced by a solar cell that also charges a small rechargeable battery or supercapacitor for the night.
The legendary figure of the Maneki-neko has its origins in both Chinese and Japanese traditions. There, cats have always been viewed ambivalently: On the one hand, they were considered industrious mousers and rat catchers and vigilant pets, therefore they brought good luck.
On the other hand, they were also said to be able to transform into demons (for example, into bakenekos and nekomatas), which is why many people felt fear of cats.
From Chinese lore comes the superstition that when a cat washes its face, it begins to rain. And because the grooming movements with the paws partly look like waving, it was believed that the cat was calling people (and also customers) into the house.
In Japan, on the other hand, waving was sometimes interpreted as a well-meaning warning of approaching misfortune, which is why cats were (and still are) revered as the reincarnation of Kannon, the goddess of mercy.
Several legends emerge from the Edo and early Meiji period (1868-1912) of Japan that may have promoted the Maneki-neko cult. The first story tells of a beautiful and wealthy geisha who went to the bathroom one day and was unexpectedly attacked by her beloved cat.
The animal scratched and screamed so terribly that one became afraid that she had become rabid, and the owner of the house, rushing to help, cut off her head with his sword. But while the head was still flying in a high arc into the toilet, he bit the head of the poisonous snake lurking there and thus saved the geisha.
The geisha was saddened by the unnecessary loss of her beloved pet, so the owner of the house gave her a ceramic figurine in the shape of the deceased cat as a consolation.
Another popular anecdote tells of a mounted group of heavily armed samurai who went to the temple of Gōtoku-ji (豪徳寺) near Edo (now Setagaya) and saw a small cat sitting there at the entrance. The cat was washing its face, and as it ran its little paws over its ears, it looked as if it was waving to the samurai. Thereupon, the warriors entered the temple peacefully, leaving the residents in peace.
Another legend tells of the head of the Ii family, who also visited the temple of Gōtoku-ji in the 17th century. According to the story, Ii Naosuke was on his way home from the imperial falconry when he was caught in a downpour. He stood under a large, old tree and suddenly noticed an old, poor temple nearby.
Right in front of the entrance gate, a cat was sitting and seemed to be waving excitedly at him. As he hurried toward it, a bolt of lightning drove straight into the tree behind him, narrowly missing him. Out of gratitude, Ii Naosuke donated a lot of money to the poor temple, saving it from imminent closure.
A fourth story tells of a good-natured, elderly cat lover and collector who was in need of money and was advised to sell her cats. However, the old woman could not bring herself to do so, and so she potted lifelike replicas of her pets. The clay figures were so well received by the buyers that they immediately became a trend among the wealthy and the old cat lady was able to pay off all her debts.
Finally, a more modern saga is about a humble fishmonger who fell seriously ill, was unable to work for a while and therefore got into financial difficulties. One day he was surprised by a stray cat that had received scraps of food from him from time to time. The cat carried a precious gold coin in its mouth, which brought the fishmonger a lot of money, so that he was able to save his store through the grateful animal.
To this day, it is traditional for cat owners to have the ashes of their deceased pets buried near the temple of Gōtoku-ji, which is why the site is also known as Maneki neko no miya (招き猫の宮 "Temple of Waving Cats"). Cat owners also visit the shrine when one of their pets is lost or seriously ill. They leave banners at the shrine with prayers and images of the Maneki-neko on them.
The spread of the Maneki-neko cult was accompanied by the introduction of the Japanese Bobtail cat breed, which was originally bred at the Japanese imperial court around 1600.
Cats with docked tails had previously arrived in Japan as gifts from the Chinese emperor; the court there then began the deliberate breeding of an independent, stub-tailed cat breed.
At the same time, the associated cult of the Maneki-neko began to flourish. At first, however, pictures and figurines of the Maneki-neko were rather rare, and it was not until the beginning of the Meiji era that illustrations and stories began to increase.
Early on, they took the Japanese Bobtail as their design model. At this time, the ceramic figures appeared in ever greater numbers in entertainment and business districts. From there, the image of the more modern Maneki-neko spread throughout Japan.
In Seto-shi in Aichi Prefecture near Nagoya, there is a ceramics museum that has one of the largest exhibitions of Maneki-neko figurines in Japan. Over a thousand exhibits from all eras and countries are displayed there.
As mentioned above, Maneki-neko figurines today are mostly from industrial mass production and are marketed worldwide, usually as "lucky cat". In the late Meiji era, the lucky charms were still found in abundance at the entrances to brothels.
In modern Japan, China and Thailand, they are placed en masse in restaurants - especially fast-food restaurants - and lotteries. In Western countries such as North America and Europe, the popularity of maneki-neko figures is currently on the rise.
An animated version of the maneki-neko is represented by the character Hello Kitty, whose name (literally "hello kitty") is also a reference to the lucky charm. Also inspired by the Maneki-neko is the Pokémon character Mauzi. In Japan, the cult of the waving cat even goes so far that many people get tattoos with Maneki-nekos as a motif.