Updated: Jul 27, 2020
A figure of a white calico cat sits, holding a coin in one paw, and beckoning onlookers with it’s other paw raised by its head. This is the face, or one of the faces, of maneki neko! Maneki Neko, or “beckoning cats” are a popular type of good luck charm in Japan. Usually made of ceramic or plastic, these figurines grace the insides of homes and businesses alike and are thought to attract wealth and prosperity to their places of residence.
The origins of maneki neko as a good luck charm are somewhat murky, but the popular consensus seems to be that they came into being at some point during the end of the Edo period. One legend states that one day a wealthy man took shelter from a rainstorm under a tree next to a temple. As the rain went on, a cat appeared in the doorway of the temple and raised its paw to beckon the man inside. The man went inside towards the cat, and immediately after the tree he had been standing under was struck by lightning. Out of gratitude for the cat who had saved his life, the man went on to be a benefactor of the temple for the rest of his life. Upon the man’s death a statue of a beckoning cat was erected at the temple in his honor, and so began the cat’s association with luck and prosperity.
In addition to being cute, maneki neko statues are full of symbolism. Variations in which paw is raised, what the cat is holding, and the color of the cat have an effect on exactly what things it is trying to welcome into its proximity. For instance, a cat holding up its left paw is thought to attract people to the building it sits inside, while a raised right paw brings in money and prosperity. A cat holding a koban (a type of Edo period coin) beckons wealth, while one holding a koi brings good fortune. As for color, maneki neko statues can be seen in a startling variety of shades, from ones that resemble the natural colors of cats to others that are purely fantasy. The most common type of maneki neko statue has a tri-color pattern, which closely resembles the natural coloring of the Japanese bobtail cat breed. Other common colors include solid white, green, red, black and gold.
With their cute appearance and auspicious meanings, maneki neko statues are a common sight across Japan, and now, in Asian neighborhoods around the world. Some newer maneki neko figures and statues have even been equipped with a joint in the shoulder of the raised arm so that they can gently wave at passers-by. Because of their popularity, maneki neko figurines are fairly easy to find for purchase and with so many options as far as meaning, finding the perfect one to beckon luck in is as easy as waving your arm!