Maneki-neko are present everywhere in Japan: in homes (in the form of money boxes, key rings, etc.) but also in shops. They are part of a real tradition that goes far beyond the decorative aspect of these objects.
A traditional statue
Also called “lucky cat”, the maneki-neko is a statue generally in ceramic or porcelain representing a seated cat raising at least one of its paws to the level of the ear. In Japanese, “maneki” comes from the verb “maneku” which means “to invite” or “to greet”. “Neko” translates to “cat”. Literally, the maneki-neko is therefore a “cat that invites” or a “cat that greets”. If tradition is to be believed, raising the left paw attracts customers while the right attracts money and luck. As a result, there are maneki-neko who lift two or even all four legs (even if the latter case is quite rare). It should also be noted that this interpretation varies according to the region. For example, some people reverse the symbols between left paw and right paw. Others claim that a raised left paw would be more beneficial for drinking establishments, the right being more useful for other businesses. If these beliefs may seem unfounded, they nevertheless find some rather logical explanations. In Japan, coffee makers are nicknamed hidari-kiki, Japanese translation for “left-handed”. However, holding your drink with your left hand is smarter for a right-handed person (the most common case). Getting out his sword with his right hand was much more natural and faster. The period also plays a determining role in the interpretation to be given to the cat. Indeed, beliefs want that the higher a cat lifts its paw, the more luck it attracts. As a result, cats have lifted their paws higher and higher over the years.
A symbolic gesture
Raising the paw is typical of the action of a cat cleaning its ear. The origin of the lucky cat could come from the Tang dynasty and in particular from a Chinese proverb which says that “The cat which washes its face goes through the ear until the guest arrives”. From a European point of view, the maneki-neko seems to be saying “goodbye” and is therefore not associated with the idea of an invitation. But in Japan, inviting someone is done by raising their hand palm facing forward and lowering and raising the fingers several times. It is therefore this gesture that the maneki-neko performs. To more closely match European traditions, some cats are westernized for sale in Europe. The palm is then turned back.
Usually, a maneki-neko wears a large golden coin called the koban, named after the ancient Japanese currency. This was used in Japan during the Edo era. If it was worth a ryo, the maneki-neko’s koban is worth ten million (well that’s what is noted). We therefore find here the idea of this statue which would attract money, wealth. The lucky cat also has three typical accessories: a bell, a collar and a bib. The first two will not shock anyone, these objects are often still found around the necks of domestic cats today. This is probably where the significance of such accessories comes from. Indeed, these are the kinds of things that cats of wealthy families wore during the Edo era. However, the idea is always to symbolically represent wealth. It is therefore not surprising that we find them on these statues. Sometimes these accessories are diversified (scarf, scarf, etc.) but in all cases, it is a well-groomed cat that is presented and not an alley cat. The fact that it is accessorized confirms this desire to make the animal more noble.
In the Japanese tradition, the maneki-neko is often tricolor (white with black and red spots). This color is particularly popular in Japan and is associated with great power as a lucky charm. This can be explained by the fact that Japanese bobtails (the breed of cats on which the maneki-neko is based) are rarely of this color. In Japanese, it is called “mi-ke” for “triple fur”. The second most popular color, white (“shiro”) symbolizes purity. Next comes black (“kuro”) which supposedly has the role of warding off evil spirits such as aggressors for example (which explains why women often opt for this color). Theoretically, red (“aka”) brings health, green (“midori”) academic and university success, etc.
Photo: Justin Miller