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Maneki-Neko: An Investigation
You’re browsing a flea market on a Sunday afternoon, dreamily sifting through limp cardboard boxes spilling over with one-armed barbie dolls, single ballet pumps and cracked china when, suddenly, you spot it. A golden cat, waving at you.
It is sitting peacefully, its eyes glazed over in a state of apparent zen. It stares straight ahead, vacant, all the while holding one paw aloft, rocking its arm (leg?) back and forth on a pivot, endlessly. And you pick up this odd plastic toy and turn it over in your palm, and you think: who on earth would ever buy this monstrosity?
Well, today we can exclusively reveal the answer to this most ubiquitous and pressing question.
Dawn of the Peculiar Waving Cat Things
To understand this most unsightly of trinkets, we must delve deep into the annals of history. Ancient Japanese folklore is brimming with competing tales explaining the origin of the symbol. The most popular version goes like this:
A long time ago, in a little hut in Tokyo there lived a monk. He was very poor.
Although he had little to eat, he shared his meals with his cat, Tama.
One day, feeling glum, he asked the cat for good fortune.
Sometime after, Lord Nakaoata of Hikone was out hunting when a nasty storm hit.
The lord took shelter under a tree.
While huddled there, he saw a cat watching him.
The cat raised one paw, as if beckoning him to follow.
Lord Nakaoata followed the kitty, and found the monk’s meagre temple.
He sheltered therein, while outside the tree he’d been hiding under was blasted by lightning.
In his gratitude, Nakaota funded the temple, expanded it, and renamed it Gotoku.
Ever since, the temple has remembered and honoured the cat that saved it.
You’ve Cat to be Kitten Me
Following his eventual demise, the noble kitty Tama was pawsthumously revered, and became a sign of good fortune and wealth. The symbol of the beckoning cat, or maneki-neko, survived down the centuries, and it is still believed that the figure of the cat with its paw in the air will bring good fortune. Statues with the left arm (leg?) held aloft are supposed to attract many customers to a shop or business, while those holding the right aloft will attract good fortune and wealth.*
Today, the very same Gotoku Temple in Tokyo is home to a silent, waving army consisting of many thousands of plastic white cats – which can be bought anywhere between the size of your thumb and a car– placed there by worshippers who have requested good fortune over the years.
*Note: Yes, many customers would bring wealth, and therefore there is an overlap. I have spent many hours researching this, yet I remain as mystified as you are.
Despite this beloved folk legend, there are fringe groups who believe that the famous raised paw stems not from this tremendous folk tale, but rather that the symbol of a kitty with a paw raised up beside its head is depicting said cat cleaning itself. If you’ve ever been in close proximity to a cat as it bathes, you will know that cats wash their faces by doing that adorable thing where they wipe their tiny paw over their eyes and ears.
There is another belief, you see, buried in Japanese folklore, that if a cat washes its face, rain is imminent (which sounds silly until you realise that we judge incoming rain by whether cows are stood up or not). And what does rain mean? Rain means passers-by dashing into your shop, seeking shelter. More customers. See? There’re tons of ways these crazy cats might be working their magic.
An Unnecessary Interlude: Meowth
Maneki-neko are also the inspiration for the Pokémon known as Meowth. For those unfamiliar with Pokémon, a quick history:
Pokémon is a manga television show that first aired in 1997. It has since become extraordinarily popular around the world. Pokémon are make-believe creatures that roam the wild. The show revolves around teenagers capturing these strange beasts and imprisoning them in Pokéballs, then periodically releasing them to make them fight for prestige.
Meowth is one such Pokémon, belonging to the crime-loving duo, Team Rocket. Thankfully, Team Rocket’s nefarious schemes are often foiled, and Meowth is regularly beaten unconscious by stronger and more noble Pokémon.
Colour Me Wealthy
They come in different colours too! And there you were, assuming this would be a swift and lightweight reflection on a quirky Japanese trinket. These things are complex.
Handy colour guide:
The most common choice and believed to be the luckiest.
Symbolising purity… if for some reason you don’t fancy opting for the ‘luckiest’ option… which would be the logical choice… because ‘luck’ is quite a good catch-all… right?
Helps to keep evil spirits away and brings good health. Again: surely the ‘luckiest’ option would top this? I do not understand.
Good health and no bad spirits so… the same as black.
So basically, you can choose only one good thing to happen to you, or all of them at once. Suddenly this all seems rather redundant. Shall we move swiftly on?
In Japan, if you want to beckon somebody towards you, you would hold out your arm, palm facing down, and flap your hand (straight fingers) up and down at the wrist. To a westerner, this looks very much like ‘shoo, go away’; the sort of gesture an uppity king would give to a mud-spattered peasant. Therefore, Japanese versions of maneki-neko appear to be shooeing us away, though they are in fact doing the opposite: this is confusing.
To placate the bewildered west, maneki-neko sold on this side of the planet have been altered to have their paw with the palm facing up, making the gesture less ‘hey you, get outta here’, and more ‘hey you, get over here’.
In the financial crash of 2008 (this sounds like a wild tangent but it’s not, honestly), Japan was affected as much as the rest of the world. Known, rather tellingly, as the ‘Lehman Shock’ in Japan, many businesses found themselves falling on tough times. Up to this point it had always been customary for maneki-neko to hold only one paw up in the air, however in their desperation, consumers instead sought out the four-leafed shamrock of Japanese fortune – the double paw-raised kitty.
Today, this type of maneki-neko is the most popular by far, with 70% of new buyers preferring to cover all bases at once by simply purchasing the version with both arms stretched skyward in a ‘raise the roof’ fashion. Smart.
If you would like to become wealthy and/or lucky, and are comfortable with sacrificing the aesthetic of the living room your partner just finished painstakingly decorating in the latest Scandinavian hygge décor: purchase one of these curious waving kitties at once.