The Charm Of Maneki Neko
On a warm evening in late June on the Punahou School campus, along the pathway leading up to the swimming pool and gym, a stray cat was calling me. The cat was telling me it was hurt. Or at least I thought it was, because the cat kept saying “meow.” (Perhaps it got injured playing with a puppy that was too “ruff.”)
I don’t particularly care for cats because I’m a dog person, but the beckoning whine of the cat caught my attention. And that’s when I saw her. An elderly woman was gingerly making her way up the path with a pail of cat food. Like magic (but unlike most prayers), the imploring whine got a response. The cat’s beckoning brought in riches.
In numerous cultures, superstitions about animals abound. Various animals are considered good-luck charms, bad omens or vehicles of the divine. Cats in particular have well-known traditions associated with them — think of black cats and cats crossing your path (which can bring good or bad luck, depending on the direction of the cat’s crossing). Cats can be shape-shifters and are supposed to have nine lives (spoiler alert: they only have one life, unless they’re Hindu or Buddhist).
While traditions and superstitions about cats vary from culture to culture, there is a certain cat tradition that we are all familiar with here in sits on the shelves at local shops and restaurants.
The maneki neko (beckoning cat) is ubiquitous. Originally from Japan, you can shops across Asia and here lo- cally sitting upright on counters with one paw raised. They can be made of clay, wood, metal, ceramic, plastic and paper maché. They carry a gold coin and they are designed to bring prosperity to the business. The raised paw beckons potential customers and good fortune to enter the shop.
In our society, the usual hand gesture to invite someone to come nearer to you is to make a hand motion similar to tossing a softball underhand or rolling a bowling ball, where your palm towards you like a wave.
In many parts of Asia, however, the beckoning hand gesture has the palm and curling more like the hand motion used when throwing a dart or shooting a basketball. Those unfamiliar with this Asian hand gesture may mistakenly think they are being greeted and may wave back, when they are actually being beckoned instead. Likewise, the maneki neko is not greeting you in the shop, it is asking for your money.
When i t s r i ght paw i s raised, it supposedly beckons financial fortune. When its left paw is raised, it beckons people. Sometimes both paws are raised, but the cat usually makes this gesture when it sits in a shop in a questionable neighborhood. Maneki neko may also come in different colors, each supposedly associated with a different kind of luck. White (purity), black (protection) and gold (prosperity) are perhaps the most common colors.
There are also various other items that the maneki neko may hold or wear, including neck ornaments such as a collar with a bell. Japanese cat owners kept track of their pets’ whereabouts their necks (some still do). Some maneki neko may also sport a decorative bib usually associated with the Buddhist also holds a gold coin that was used in the Edo period in Japan (1600-1868). The written characters on the coin usually translate to “10 million ryo,” an exorbitant amount of money back then (though still not enough to afford a single-family home in common, other objects found with maneki neko include a carp, moneybag, fan, drum and gourd — all symbols of good luck.
The source of the maneki neko tradition is not clear, though most think its symbol as a good luck charm can be traced to the Edo period in Japan. While there are numerous legends about the origin of the maneki neko, the basic storyline is that a cat is given shelter in an impoverished temple or shop, and its destitute rescuer is rewarded with an upturn in fortunes. In other versions, the cries of a cat belonging to a temple or shop save a person then rewards the temple or shop with riches. An alternative theory associates the maneki neko with the sex industry in Japan, when the cat replaced explicitly phallic talismans displayed in brothels to lure customers in.
The maneki neko may simply be an example of a frivolous tradition, but I couldn’t help but notice on that warm summer evening how its beckoning brought food for itself and $23,000 per year tuition from patrons to its place of residence.
Jay Sakashita teaches religion courses at Leeward Community College and UH
The Japanese maneki neko (beckoning cat) statues that may be found in many shops and restaurants throughout Hawai‘i aren’t waving a greeting — they are beckoning or asking for money.