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Maneki-Neko: The History of the Japanese Waving Lucky Cat

The last time you went to a Chinese restaurant, you probably noticed at least one of those waving cat statues somewhere near the front of the building. And since these waving cats are so ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants, there’s a good chance you’ve always thought these statues were Chinese.

Surprise—the waving cat, known as maneki-neko, is actually Japanese!

Now that you know where this waving cat is actually from, you might be wondering what else you don’t know about it. That’s why we’re here with a quick history of the Japanese waving lucky cat and the reasons it’s considered lucky.

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The History of Maneki-Neko

The first thing to know about the waving cat is that it isn’t actually waving. Rather, it’s beckoning. In Japan, when you want to call someone over to you, you raise a hand and do what looks like a one-handed clap. “Maneki-Neko” actually translates to “beckoning cat”.

Meneki Neko cat figurine
Image Credit: Cris Feliciano, Pexels


As far as the origins of the maneki-neko, there are several legends, but two stand out more than others. Probably the most common explanation of this statue’s origin is the legend that it came about in the Edo period of Japanese history. This legend tells the story of Ii Naotaka, who was passing by Gōtoku-ji temple when a cat beckoned him into the temple. As soon as he stepped inside, lightning struck where he had just been. Naotaka was so grateful to the feline for saving his life that he designated it a patron of Gōtoku-ji, and a shrine was created. To this day, you’ll find thousands of beckoning cats at this temple.

Then there’s the tale of an older woman in 1852 who was so destitute she could no longer care for her cat and had to give it up. Her former pet then appeared to her in a dream, saying that if she made dolls in the cat’s image, she would gain good fortune. So, she did. And sure enough, she was able to rise out of poverty due to how popular these dolls became. However, these statues, known as maru-shime no neko (“good fortune cat”), were a bit different from the traditional maneki-neko, as these statues were sideways sitting, with the head facing forward.

The Spread of Maneki-Neko

Like its origins, how the maneki-neko spread outside of Japan is also a bit unclear. An anthropology professor from the University of California posited that these statues may have begun to become widespread due to the Public Morals Ordinance of 1872. Until then, phallic charms were often very publicly on display in Japanese towns. However, the government of Japan wanted to look more polished to Westerners who were extremely conservative, so the Public Morals Ordinance outlawed those charms, and the maneki-neko ended up taking their place. These statues then ended up becoming prosperity amulets, which caused them to spread to other Asian communities, particularly in China.

But how did they get to the States? Japanese pop culture hit a boom in the 1980s and 90s in what was known as the “Cool Japan” era. Pop culture from Japan was everywhere, and along with a wave of Chinese immigration to America, the maneki-neko became embedded in American culture as well.

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The Good Fortune of Maneki-Neko

So why exactly do these beckoning cats represent good fortune? While part of it does have to do with the good fortune found in the legends of their origin, there are other reasons, too—mainly how these statues are tied in with their real-life counterparts.

Cats have been feared and revered throughout Japanese history. In the 1600s, they were revered for their excellence at pest control, and then they became well-known as a sign of prosperity for businesses. However, there have also been a host of supernatural felines in Japanese folklore, with some being quite monstrous. This love/hate relationship with felines can be summed up with the Japanese proverb neko wo koroseba nanadai tataru (“If you kill a cat, it will haunt your family for seven generations”)—or essentially, take care of a cat, and it will take care of you in turn. There’s a huge amount of belief regarding the power of cats in Japan!

Image Credit: khfalk, Pixabay

Colors and Accoutrements

One more thing to know about maneki-neko is that these cats come in several different colors (and not for aesthetic purposes!). You can find these beckoning cat statues in colors including:

  • White (brings happiness)
  • Red (brings health)
  • Gold/yellow (brings good fortune)
  • Black (protects against omens and illness)
  • Pink (brings love)
  • Silver (brings longevity)

Colors aren’t the only things that change the meaning of these statues, though. Sometimes these felines come with accouterments as well, such as:

  • Gold bell (brings good fortune)
  • Red scarf (attracts attention)
  • Gold coin (brings wealth)

And which paw the cat is beckoning with changes the meaning, too—the left paw beckoning indicates customers and friendship, while the right paw indicates good fortune.

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Final Thoughts

The waving cats found in Chinese or Asian fusion restaurants are neither Chinese nor waving. Instead, these beckoning cats came to us from Japan (although mostly via Chinese immigration). These statues can be amulets and talismans for a host of things, from good fortune to bringing love, depending on their color and the accouterments found on them. Even which paw they’re beckoning with brings a different meaning.

You might want to add a maneki-neko to your home to invite some good fortune and health in!

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Featured Image Credit: angelsover, Pixabay