The Charm Of Maneki Neko

MidWeek (Hawaii) - - Front Page - MISFIT SPIRIT Jay Sakashita

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.

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