On our recent trip to LA, and a previous trip to San Francisco, I’ve been obsessed with buying various versions of the Maneki Neko, the iconic Japanese cat statues with upraised paw, holding on to a gold coin with the other paw.
“Maneki Neko” translates literally to “welcoming cat,” and its paw beckons to people in the Asian style, palm out and fingers moving down to say “yo! come here!”
I grew up seeing these cat statuettes everywhere in Japan, so they’re a part of my childhood memories. I always liked seeing them in Japaneses businesses here in the U.S. But in recent years, the Maneki Neko, which is supposed to bring good fortune, wealth (if the right paw’s raised) or more customers (if the left paw’s raised), has become a familiar site at all sorts of Asian businesses from Korean restaurants to Asian gift stores and souvenir shops. There are a dizzying array of neko styles, shaoes and sizes.
I keep buying tiny porcelain ones, but this time in LA, I had to have a silly plastic one that’s solar-powered with three cats — one large one and two kittens — whose heads bob back and forth. Some solar powered ones wave their paws, but something about the bobbing heads makes me smile, so I have it on my cube wall at the office.
I also try to buy Maneki Neko (and other Japanese cat sculptures) that have black-and-white cats, which look like our favorite cat, Rufus (shown above in a kitten photo when he was about 1 year old). Call me a softie, I just like cats, and I find the Maneki Neko a fascinating tradition.
I checked out Wikipedia to find the origins of the Maneki Neko:
While it is believed that Maneki Neko first appeared during the later part of the Edo period (1603-1867) in Japan the earliest documentary evidence comes from the 1870s, during Japan’s Meiji Era. It is mentioned in a newspaper article in 1876 and there is evidence kimono-clad Maneki Neko were distributed at a shrine in Osaka during this time. An ad from 1902 advertising Maneki Neko indicates that by the turn of the century they were popular.
Beyond that, the exact origins of Maneki Neko are uncertain.
A frequent attribution to several Japanese emperors, as well as to Oda Nobunaga and samurai Ii Naotaka, is that one day the luminary passed by a cat, which seemed to wave to him. Taking the cat’s motion as a sign, the unknown nobleman paused and went to it. Diverted from his journey, he realized that he had avoided a trap that had been laid for him just ahead. Since that time, cats have been considered wise and lucky spirits. Many Japanese shrines and homes include the figurine of a cat with one paw upraised as if wavingâ€”hence the origin of Maneki Neko, often referred to as Kami Neko in reference to the cat’s kami or spirit.
Here’s another site, Meowscape, with a slightly more detailed history and some fun facts about Maneki Neko. And another take from the A to Z Photo Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Statuary.
I also found a pretty interesting online Maneki Neko Museum, from which I borrowed the triple Nekos above.
Here’s our small but growing collection. The large three-cat sculpture is an antique from Erin’s late Baachan Nitta.