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Maneki Neko – Those Lucky Cats (NSFW)

Cats

Maneki Neko – Those Lucky Cats (NSFW)

We’ve all seen those jovial, happy cat figurines in Asian restaurants and shops. Sitting upright with their raised paw, smiling face and trademark bell and bib, Maneki Neko (in Japanese 招き猫, “beckoning cat”) have symbolized all kinds of luck and good fortune for over 400 years. Their slightly mysterious origins just add to their mystique and charm.

Modern Maneki Neko. Source: Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen.

These feisty little creatures originated in Japan’s Edo Period (1615-1868). This was a time of great prosperity in Japan. Cats were a symbol of the growing and wealthy merchant class and higher society. There is no agreement on the origin story, but the stories always involve a cat saving a priest or merchant’s life or livelihood, bringing them great prosperity and rewards with their charm.

Maneki Neko, Carved Wood Sculpture with a Gesso-Like Finish and much of its Pigment remaining. Late Edo Period, mid-19th century, Japan. 6”. Source: Japaneseaesthetics.tumblr.com

How the cats were made into figures came from the story of an old woman who was so poor she had to sell her beloved cat. After selling it, the cat visited her in her dreams and told her to make its image in clay to sell and earn lots of money, which she did becoming very successful.

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Stone Maneki Neko cat, Edo Period ca. 1800, height 21cm. Source: Antique Stones Japan.
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Wood Maneki Neko, early 20thc, Mingei International Museum. Source: SFO Museum.

With the wealth and self-sufficiency amassed during the Edo Period, Japan became quite isolated from the rest of the world. The powerful merchant class culture created an increase in the sex industry with prostitution and brothels. These sex shops displayed lucky talismans in the shape of penises, which look remarkably similar to the Maneki Neko. The Meiji Period (1868-1912) followed the Edo, and Japan opened itself back up to doing business with the Western more conservative Christian world. The phallic charms were banned. Subsequently there was an increase in the displaying of the cats.

Good luck Phallus statue, iron, 9.5cm tall, 18th Century, Edo Period, Japan. Source: Antiques.com.

Maneko Neki were originally made of wood, metal, porcelain or cast iron. These days you can find them in all sorts of materials, especially plastic, and a rainbow of colors. The colors are a key part of their luck with different symbols for each. Black wards off evil, red or green brings good health, yellow/gold denotes wealth, pink invites romance and white is happiness. Calico is considered extremely lucky since it combines several of the colors.

Ceramic Maneki Neko, 21st c, Japan, 15cm tall. Source: Skymart21.

Western viewers mistakenly see the raised paw as a waving gesture, when in fact, in Japan, this is a movement of beckoning. A raised left paw ensures more customers to a business, while a right paw means more money and wealth.

Hawaiian style Maneki Neko, 21st c. Source: Tasty Island Hawaii, 2014.

The Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo lays claim to one of the original legends of the Maneki Neko. One story tells of a poor monk who could scarcely afford to maintain the original temple, so his beloved cat beckoned traveling samurai from a rainstorm to seek shelter, lodgings and learn the teachings of the monk. So impressed were the samurai, they donated goods and funds to the monk. Another tale has the lucky cat saving a feudal lord from a thunder storm. The lord then built the temple as an act of gratitude. To this day, tourists and visitors visit the temple by the thousands, leaving behind Maneki Neko to grant their wishes.

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Thousands of offerings of Maneki Neko at Gotokuji Temple, Tokyo. Source: Japan Starts Here, 2019.

Maneki Neko’s colorful history just make them more charming and endearing. These days you can find the cats in all shapes, sizes and forms. There are keychains, calendars, bands, air fresheners, pots – pretty much anything. Now that holiday season is here, they would make an excellent and welcome gift. And with the new year upon us, who doesn’t want a little more luck and good fortune?

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Waving Maneki Neko, 21st c, Source: giftsoftheorient.co.uk.

Check Fat Cat’s guide to classic art here and meet famous artists and their cats here!


Giotto’s weeping angels started my love affair with art history.
Seattle, WA based.

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