Maneki Neko: Feline Fact & Fiction

Text by Alan Pate. Photography by Ben Jenkins, Courtesy of L’Asie Exotique

Anyone who has spent time in Japan, strolling the streets and alleys, exploring the antique shops and frequenting restaurants is no doubt already long familiar with the friendly, enticing figure of the maneki neko, or beckoning shop cat. This endearing form of a seated cat with its paw raised, beckoning customers and fortune into the shops is always a heart-warming sight (see lefthand photo on cover).

So appealing is the image and so well-known is its association with good luck and fortune, that today one is as likely to encounter a maneki neko in the restaurants and shops of Chinatown in New York as in the shops of Shinmonzen in Kyoto.

Although these contemporary forms have their own appeal, it is the older pieces that resonate with skill and craftsmanship. When you contrast the newer products with the elegantly crafted Edo (1603-1867) and Meiji (1868-1912) period forms, whether they be of deftly modelled porcelain, or of wood, darkened and patinated with age and handling, one is struck by the sterility of the contemporary plastic, neon-colored, highly decorated and exaggerated features of a Chinatown “Lucky Cat.” Whether executed in wood, stone, porcelain, or even iron, the maneki neko of old certainly possess the innocent charm and beauty that is the hallmark of Japanese folk art.
A San Francisco Bay area collection helps us to discover the history, form, and meaning of the maneki neko. Begun over ten years ago, the collection consists of a little over 50 pieces drawn principally from the late Edo and Meiji periods. Beginning with the gift of a maneki neko bank, the collector (who prefers to remain anonymous) became definitively hooked when she happened on a shop containing a set of fine Meiji Period porcelain figures. From that point on it has become her goal to collect as wide a variety of pieces as possible, focusing on earlier figures whenever possible. Examples drawn from the collection provide us with a glimpse at the history, variety of materials employed, and some of the symbolism inherent in the maneki neko.

History

Considering how accepted the cat has become, and how dear the image is to the Japanese, few people seem to know much about it. How has a seated cat become a symbol of good fortune and prosperity? What are its roots? Why do some have the left paw raised and others the right? Why are some white, some black, gold, or even red?
Given the nature of folk traditions, evolving over time, absorbing elements of local beliefs and customs, we may never know the exact evolution of the maneki neko. Of course the mystery is part of the fun, part of the appeal of these creatures. But pinpointing some of the early origins of the maneki neko can only increase our appreciation of them as they continue to evolve.

Stories abound regarding the origins and characteristics of these wonderful creatures. A casual survey of antique dealers in Tokyo and Kyoto reveals many curious interpretations and theories: They originated in Osaka. No, they originated in Edo (old Tokyo). They originated in the 17th century. No, they most definitely originated in the early 16th century. The left paw is for wealth and the right for luck. No, the left is for a drinking establishment and the right for merchants. No, the left is for business and the right for home. All in all a confusing survey!
Yet amidst the disparities, certain themes seem consistent. The classic “origin” story typically involves a poor shop (restaurant, bar, temple, etc.); its proprietor, though destitute, takes in a hungry and neglected cat. After being cared for and loved, the cat ventures out and by sitting in front and beckoning to passers-by, the fortunes of the place are reversed and the owner’s reward is prosperity. Thus the symbol of a beckoning cat came to be viewed as a good-luck talisman for merchants.

While the story certainly is charming, it does not convincingly explain why this particular image would have such a strong association with good fortune.

Based on this story alone, why would an entire culture be drawn to this symbol and classic poems have been written eulogizing it?

Cats in legend

A recent book, Shiawase no Maneki Neko (Happiness of the Beckoning Cat) published by Kawade Shobo in 1995 point to a very interesting, less-commercial, more religious context for the cat in Japanese popular culture, linking together long-held superstitions, folk tales, and even finding roles in both Shinto and Buddhist traditions.
In this light the maneki neko takes on a larger meaning. Far from being a shallow, though long-standing commercial gimmick, they can be seen as a repository for a myriad of tales and beliefs which work together to create an image which is uniquely Japanese.

Folk tales, legends, and superstitions about cats are common all over the world. Something in their self-possessed nature, a certain knowing look or attitude has long elicited suspicion and fear, as well as love and devotion. Japan is no exception: Traditionally cats were not allowed in a room containing a recently dead body for fear that the static electricity generated by the cat’s fur would disturb the dead.

Long-tailed cats were long believed to be able to transform themselves into female vampire-like monsters (fig. 2). The tails of cats were often lopped off to prevent that, which may explain the origin of the Japanese bobtail. It is also said that if a cat washes its face while facing west, the weather will be clear; if facing east, a storm is coming.

In Buddhist tradition, cats were long thought to be excluded from Nirvana because the cat was said to have been too busy chasing rats to attend the ceremony commemorating Buddha’s passing into Nirvana. In part to correct this long-held belief, several temples in Japan, such as Gotoku-ji and Eko-in in Tokyo, are dedicated to cats, with monks offering up prayers to the souls of departed felines, to ensure their smooth transition to the next plane.
In fact, some of the earliest tales associated with cats as bringers of good fortune and luck center around temples. One of the oldest documented stories resembling the version above, dates from the early 17th century and revolves around Gotoku-ji.

Documents held at the temple tell of events in 1615, when a cat was taken in by a monk. The temple was in a very sad state with few parishioners, and in desperate need of repair. After caring for the cat for a time, the monk lamented: “Kitty, I can’t blame you for not helping, after all you’re just a cat. If you were but a man, you might do something to help us.”

Soon after, a large group of samurai and their retainers passed the temple during a storm. Their leader was Ii Naotaka (1590-1659), (hereditary owner of Hikone Castle, Shiga) returning with honors to Edo after victory at the seige of Osaka Castle. He was lured into the temple grounds by a cat sitting at the temple gate beckoning to him (fig. 3). On entering the temple Ii met the monk and was impressed by his wisdom and touched by the plight of the temple. As a result Gotoku-ji became the Ii family temple, drastically reversing the fortunes of the temple and ushering in a period of prosperity that continues to this day.

An even earlier story involves Jisho-in, a Tokyo area temple founded originally by Kukai (Kobo-Daishi, 774-835), the priest who created the hirigana script. According to documents held at the temple, sometime during the mid-16th century there was an intense fight between two individuals: Toshima and Ota. While fighting, Ota became disoriented. He stumbled upon a black cat which led him to the temple where he was able to recuperate. Upon regaining his strength Ota was able to defeat Toshima. In gratitude for the little black cat which saved his life, Ota ordered that a jizo be fashioned in the shape of a cat. The statue is known as neko-men jizo or jizo with a cat face (fig. 4).

Perhaps the earliest association of the cat with good luck or protection comes from a Chinese tradition amongst silk worm breeders who thought the cat protected silkworms. When silk growing was introduced to Japan in the 4th century, this idea of the cat as a protector was also introduced. Votive plaques or osatsu with images of cats were made and dedicated to the kaiko gami or silk worm spirit. Thus cats and successful silk growing were linked.

Form

A seated cat, a bib tied around its full neck, a bell or two dangling from the bib, the paw raised to the side of the head; all in all a simple image. How much variety can there be with such a simple formula? The answer is: plenty!
When one views them in isolation, one here, another there, there is a certain sameness. When you are fortunate enough to view a collection of them, you begin to perceive the subtle but clear individuality which makes this an intriguing manifestation of Japanese folklore tradition; each is as unique and special as the shops and homes they adorned.

As with any form, the more familiar one becomes, the more one looks for the subtle differences that distinguish, those combinations of elements which give each figure its personality and individuality. Are the eyes straightforward and wide-eyed? Are they shifty and glancing sideways? Sad and downcast? Happy and expectant?
Is the bib a plain field done in a knot behind the head or an elaborate montage of patterns, colors, and bells? Is it a pocket-sized figure likely to go unnoticed by the casual observer (fig. 5) or a larger-than-life rendition which commands attention? Is the paw formed separately from the body or melded into the overall form? Is it near the head or extended outward, or maybe even pawing the air aggressively in front of its face?

Even more fundamental to the overall feeling is the material the cat is made from: woods, rich in grain and texture; porcelain, elegant and refined; clay, the quintessential folk material, raw and individual; papier maché, whimsical and unpredictable; or stoneware, simple and minimalist. Each material lends its own essence to the power and personality of the individual piece.

Wood

An aspect of great appeal in wood carving is the grain, full and rich, which can be seen by the eye and caressed by the creator and the admirer. This is especially true of the older wooden maneki neko with their rich patina, a testament to the fondling they have enjoyed (fig. 6). The hue of the wood, the softening of the features over time as they pass from hand to hand, all work together to give life and add personality to the beckoning cat.
More than just surface appeal, the simple wooden figures often have a stronger connection with the original folk beliefs and superstitions.

Though in the classic pose, left paw up, a wooden cat in the collection is an excellent example. It seems to hold a little of the supernatural (fig. 1): the slight twist of the head, the studded eyes, the serpentine curve of the mouth, its imposing size (40 cm.), the way the right arm carved separately from the body bends at a reverse angle, all work together to create a slightly unsettling image. In looking at this figure it is easy to invoke stories of the cat as a being apart, filled with mystery.

Porcelain

Porcelain figures may be the epitome of maneki neko as an art form: sophisticated and refined. Patronized mostly by the burgeoning Edo merchant class and continuing into the Meiji period, these figures reached a level of elegance unparalleled in any other medium. Though produced in quantity, the handpainted decorations ensured individuality. Modeling techniques varied; figures with separately formed arms and paws were more complex and therefore more prized.

A finely formed figure from the collection (right photo on the cover) possesses a singular look, slightly canted eyes, pronounced cheek, nose, and brow line; its panelled maedare or yodare kake (bib) sports wonderful floral bursts overlaid with bells tied by a thick red cord and raised beads, secured in a finely executed knot. Its right paw is raised and separately formed. The musculature is clear, along with a slightly sagging tummy—a sure symbol of wealth and prosperity for any home or shop.

The creamy white body with splashes of black and reddish brown typify the porcelains of Meiji cats and closely emulate the coloring patterns of the real-life tri-colored or mike Japanese bobtail. This tortoise-shell cat was traditionally thought to bring good luck into the home. A grouping of these figures (fig. 7) offers a wonderful opportunity for side-by-side comparisons of features, bib details, body formation, paw placement, facial expressions. The range seems infinite!

Clay

Clay maneki neko are some of the most delightful figures ever made. They possess a raw individuality that make them completely unpredictable (fig. 8). Ranging from the simple to the surprisingly complex, they provide a vast terrain for the collector to explore and enjoy (see lefthand photo on the cover & figs. 9 & 10).

Papier Maché

Papier maché (hariko in Japanese) has long been a favorite material for creating folk images, from the classic Daruma tumble toy to the beckoning cat. Formed by layering paper over a wood or heavy clay mold, then painting it in bright and whimsical colors, papier maché had the advantage of being cheaper than other materials and so was accessible to more people. Unlike porcelain or clay forms which usually merely consist of the cat image itself, papier maché neko often incorporate other images. A cat paired with a Daruma, or faces of other folk deities, such as Daikoku (fig. 11) or Ebisu, are a common variation. The molds themselves are also an interesting form (fig. 12).

Stoneware

Figures from the Bizen kiln are striking in the contrast they provide to the colorful porcelain, painted clay, and papier maché figures. Bizen ware traditionally came from the village of Imbe, on the Inland Sea. Though sometimes embellished with a light ash glaze, it is most noted for its unglazed treatment of a very rich, almost chocolate brown clay. When applied to the creation of a maneki neko, the result is beautifully elegant, with emphasis on the form itself: the curvature of shoulders and haunches, the soft modeling of the face, or the playful placement of an outstretched paw (fig. 13).

Meaning

Looking at the large range of maneki neko that have been produced over the years, one is struck by the many variations. Rather than being just random stylistic flourishes, however, many elements touch on specific beliefs or stories that feed the maneki neko legend. It is just these symbols that seem to cause the greatest confusion and provoke the most questions among those not versed in Japanese folk tales and history. In unravelling the mystery that seems to shroud the maneki neko, one needs to look at four principal elements: the paw, the bib, the color and the coins.

What’s in a paw?

Left paw up, right paw up; what’s the difference? This is probably the most frequently asked question and also the question that elicits the widest array of responses. Typical interpretations include: left paw up is for money while the right paw is for good luck. Left paw up is for bars and tea houses (in Japan someone who holds his liquor well is said to be left-handed, hidari-kiki), while the right is for stores. Left paw means fortune, right paw means health, etc. (fig. 7).

The fact of the matter is, there is probably no one correct answer and tradition affects each response. Local customs also play a role. For example, at Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka, an interesting tradition entails buying one hatatsu-san (a clothed version of the maneki neko) a month for four years. On odd-numbered months left-paw versions are bought to ensure good fortune in business and on even-numbered months right-paw versions to ensure prosperity at home. Local custom holds that if one does this deligently for the full 48 months one’s whole personal and professional life will be sound.

What’s in a bib?

The decorative use of bibs is founded in Japanese tradition. In a religious context they can be found ornamenting jizo, Shinto stone sculptures where bibs are placed to pray for the recovery of sick children.
In a more secular vein, toy dogs often have bibs as do the famous white gosho or palace dolls. Kuniyoshi, the 19th century print artist, in his celebrated cat series often portrayed them decked in luxuriant bibs.
One of the striking features of the maneki neko is the bib or maedare. Often adorned with a single bell or row of bells, the bib receives a wide variety of treatments. Porcelain bibs are often elaborate. Taking advantage of the colors and versatility of this medium, the bibs often have brilliant hues of red, blue, green, and yellow on flower-splashed panels with raised dots of white and gold, then tied behind the neck in sumptuous knots (see righthand photo on cover).

Although little is known about the creators of these beautiful images, it is said that one could identify the artist by simply looking at the bib decoration: it acted almost like a signature for the sophisticated figures. In folk clay forms, the bibs are often in bold relief, flaring out sharply from the neck, sometimes partially hiding the raised arm (see lefthand cover photo), ornamented with a wide array of symbols and motifs (fig. 10). Sometimes we find bibs of chirimen or silk crepe actually tied around the neko rather than molded into the form itself.
One story pointing to the origin of the bib on maneki neko revolves around Usugumo, a historic 17th century Edo beauty known for her love of cats. One in particular was loved and doted upon. She named this cat “Tama” because he loved to play with balls. Usugumo bought Tama a golden bell and attached it to a luxurious chirimen bib (fig. 14). In the evenings she would go for a walk carrying Tama, his golden bell jingling as they strolled along. Neighbors found this such a striking and beautiful scene that other ladies in the area began to emulate Usugumo, tying chirimen bibs with bells to their cats and promenading in the evening air.

But the story takes a dark turn. Such was the renown of Usugumo and her devotion to Tama that tales tinged with the supernatural began to circulate suggesting a darker side to the relationship. Until this point Usugumo’s master had been very indulgent of his beauty’s love for cats and Tama in particular. But upon hearing these stories, he flew into a rage. Taking his sword, he chopped off Tama’s head to the protesting cries of Usugumo. The story goes on to relate that as a dying gesture of Tama’s devotion, his disembodied head latched on to the throat of a nearby snake that was menacing Usugumo, killing it and demonstrating on (gratitude) for all the kindness that Usugumo had shown.

What’s in a color?

Just as maneki neko are found in a wide variety of materials, so too are the colors. The well-known white of the mike or tortoiseshell porcelain neko is just one color version among many.
Some colors tend to have regional significance and variation. For example merchants in Kyoto are said to favor black cats for their shops while those in Tokyo feel that black is unlucky (fig. 15). In some areas black cats are said to be talismans against disease. In earlier times, red maneki neko were thought to specifically ward off the measles.

A popular story concerning gold cats centers around two rival tea houses in Edo. The eastern tea house used a gold maneki neko as its symbol (fig. 16) while the western one used a silver one. The proprietor of the eastern tea house was a slob and lazy, while his wife, O-Tsuna, was very popular. She had an effervescent personality and much of the tea house’s success was due to her charms as a hostess.

One patron in particular, Hachirobi, an old clothing vendor, was quite smitten with her. One evening, angered by the bills run up by her husband, O-Tsuna cajoled a large sum of money out of Hachirobi. Unfortunately the money was not his; he had collected it on behalf of another vendor. After leaving the golden neko tea house, Hachirobi fell into despair and resolved to throw himself into the Sumida River. O-Tsuna happened upon him there, and on hearing his story, was filled with such shame that she, too, resolved to kill herself and they both jumped into the Sumida, committing shinju (double suicide).

The incident caused a great sensation, and it was not long before the golden neko tea house began staging the story for its customers. Their success ultimately forced the silver neko tea house to close.

What’s in a coin?

Sometimes maneki neko are depicted with a gold coin dangling from their bibs. Or sometimes two coins are seen in the right paw while the left paw beckons (figs 11 & 17).

The pairing of gold coins with maneki neko can be traced back to one specific cat memorialized at Eko-In Temple in Tokyo. There a grave dedicated to a cat in 1816 tells the following story: a fishmonger who did his rounds in Edo would make a daily stop at a money-changer named Tokita Kisaburo to conduct business. He would always have a scrap or two of fish for the money-changer’s cat (fig. 12). This was the routine for some time.
But the fishmonger fell ill and was unable to make his usual rounds. While ill he awoke one morning to find two gold coins by his futon. He was quite puzzled by this, wondering who had left him these coins, but they came in handy, helping him through this period when he could not work.

After recovering he expected to find the cat at the money-changer’s as before. When the cat did not appear for his treat, the fishmonger asked about the cat. The money-changer coldly responded that he had killed the cat: one morning he had noticed two gold coins missing and assumed they had been stolen. The next morning he had found his cat slinking away with another coin in its mouth which he immediately retrieved. The following morning he awoke to find the cat stealing yet another coin. So in anger he had killed the thieving cat.

The fishmonger was filled with sadness and told the money-changer his story of finding the two coins by his bedside during his illness, concluding that the cat had tried to repay the fishmonger for all his kindness. Grieving over his mistake the money-changer gave the fishmonger the two gold coins the cat had intended for him. Later, a tombstone was erected commemorating the cat’s generosity, saying: “A male animal which did virtuous and good acts.”

Collecting

For the collector, maneki neko are a rich field, with wonderful finds and unexpected surprises. After over ten years of collecting, our San Francisco collector is still amazed at the totally unique and different figures that turn up periodically. Just when she thinks she has seen it all, bang! something totally distinctive will appear. And the quest goes on. Having more than covered the basics, she now hopes to acquire more unusual, older pieces, looking not only at the materials used but the facial expressions, paw placement and level of animation within the figure. “People keep offering me cat figurines, pitchers, banks, and things like that,” she explains. “They don’t seem to understand that it’s not just cat imagery that I’m attracted to. It’s the maneki neko itself. It’s something indefinable.”

The exact age is always a difficult thing when dealing with antiques, and this is no exception. These figures have been produced for centuries. While it may be easy to separate the very early pieces from the most recent, there is that awkward middle ground. One helpful hint given me by dealers in Kyoto centers on the paw.
Contemporary pieces often place the paw high above the head, the logic being that the higher the paw the further its reach for bringing in fortune. Edo and Meiji period pieces tend to have the paw in a mid-range somewhere between the nose and the base of the ear. “The higher the paw, the newer the piece!” one dealer intoned like a mantra.

With porcelain figures people often check the firing hole at the bottom: the smaller the hole, the older the piece, it is said. But some dealers feel that this reflects rather the quality of the porcelain than the age of the piece. All in all it can be confusing for the collector.

As in most fields, the more exposure one has to a wide variety of cats, the more one develops a certain feel for things. Older pieces have a certain something absent in the newer pieces, a quality of age that just can not be duplicated.

The author is a partner in the Asian antique firm of L’Asie Exotique in La Jolla, California, USA, Tel 619-459-6717 & Fax 619-459-6003. He received an M.A. in Korean history and language from Harvard University.