The Dōbutsuen: Neko

The Dōbutsuen: Neko

Japan’s native religion, Shinto, has far more than one deity. In fact, the Japanese believe that just about everything in nature has a spirit or kami [神] to protect it. As we’ve seen before with such animals as the kitsune [狐] and the tanuki [狸], living creatures are themselves considered sacred and have strong connotations of luck and good fortune.

Neko [猫]

You can’t go far in Japan without seeing one of its most popular good luck charms, the maneki neko [招き猫] or ‘lucky cat’. Maneki neko are so well-known that they have become national symbols for Japan and are widely recognised throughout the world.

You will find maneki neko adorning a plethora of objects in Japanese popular culture. The most common and well-loved form they take is the ceramic statue, which can be found gracing the doorways of businesses in Japan. The raised paw of a maneki neko welcomes customers into the shop – some figures even have mechanisms which cause the paw to gently move forward and back.

A common misconception is that the cat is waving at you; in actual fact, it is beckoning you (the Japanese beckon by holding their palm face down and moving the fingers forward and back).

You might think that this gesture looks remarkably like the cat is washing its face; and indeed, there is a Japanese saying that a cat which sits in the doorway washing its face is doing so because there will soon be a visitor. This is possibly where the lucky connection for businesses comes from.

Sometimes, the paw that is raised can determine the kind of luck the maneki neko is beckoning. Generally, the right paw is raised to welcome custom and the left to welcome in good luck. Some maneki neko have both paws raised, and the higher the paw, the greater the luck.

A maneki neko also has a decoration around its neck; traditionally, this would be a red collar, a bib and a bell. These items were popular in wealthy households during the Edo or Tokugawa period (1603 to 1868). The collar was dyed red using the hichirimen flower; as red was and still is considered a particularly auspicious colour. The bib is purely decorative, although some believe it is linked to the red bibs worn by statues dedicated to the Buddhist deity Jizō Bosatsu [地蔵菩薩], protector of children.

Often a maneki neko carries a gold coin in its other paw, quite obviously to welcome financial luck. This is the koban [小判], a form of currency used during the Edo period. These oblong-shaped coins were yellow or gold in colour and were written upon and stamped with the royal crest. The actual coin was worth one ryō [両] (an old Chinese measure used to weigh gold), but the ones maneki neko carry are worth ten million!

It is then not surprising that one of the maneki neko products which became popular in the late 19th century was a recepticle for money, much like the western piggy bank (I own such a maneki neko figure, which has a coin slot fired into the back of its head).

There are numerous stories about the maneki neko. The vast majority of these are folklore which try to explain how the lucky cat came to be lucky in the first place.

A wealthy lord was caught out on the road during a thunderstorm and took shelter under a nearby tree. He was soon approached by a little cat which beckoned to him. As he reached out to it, it moved away from the tree; but as it still beckoned, he followed. Moments later, the tree was struck by lightning.

There was a courtesan named Usugumo, who lived in the red light district of Yoshiwara in eastern Tokyo. She had a pet cat which she loved dearly, for it had been her faithful companion for many years. One night she was sitting in her room when the cat began tugging at her kimono. No matter how she tried to shoo it away, it would not stop tugging.

When the owner of the house saw what the cat was doing, she feared that Usugumo’s expensive kimono would be ruined. Believing the cat was bewitched, the owner cut off the cat’s head, which then bounced towards the ceiling, striking dead a poisonous snake which had been coiled there ready to strike.

Usugumo was devastated by the death of her faithful cat. To cheer her up, a customer had a wooden likeness made of the cat; this was the first maneki neko.

It is said that the Emperor of Japan was once travelling between Kyoto and Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Night was falling. The Emperor saw a cat sitting at the side of the road, calmly watching the procession approach. As he came close to the cat he was amazed to see that the cat would not run from the noise of his men and horses. Instead, it was staring at him meaningfully and beckoning with its paw.

Intrigued, the Emperor stepped down onto the road and walked across to where the cat was, and bent down to pet it. When he turned to get up, he then saw that just a little further along the road a trap had been laid for him. When the Emperor reached Tokyo, he had fine statues made in the likeness of his feline friend in gratitude for saving his life.

Photo credit: MR+G

2 Comments on “The Dōbutsuen: Neko”

  1. Phoenix says:

    You had me at your “About” page Marie. I just didn’t see any place to comment there.

    I love your posts! I’m definitely going to have to come back here. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog. I look forward to the journey together.

    – Phoenix

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