You may have noticed in many Asian establishments about town these little model cats, but why are they there and what do they mean?
The cats are known as Maneki-neko (招き猫) which literally translates to ‘beckoning cat’ although they are also commonly referred to as lucky cats, money cats and fortune cats. These lucky cats are vastly popular symbols of good luck across Asia but originated in Japan sometime in the Menji era. It appears, to most Western cultures that the cat is waving. However the cat is actually performing the Asian gesture to beckon, holding the arm upwards, palm facing outward and pulling the fingers back and forth. These cats appear at shop door not only to welcome, but to beckon one into a shop.
Many different traditions surround the cats, including the higher the cat is raising the arm the better luck/more wealth you will attract, the left hand representing beckoning to customers and the right good fortune/health. However these traditions can be inverted or represent completely different things, depending on the country or region. Another tradition surrounding the cats is to decorate them with collars, bibs and bells around their necks, probably the most important decoration though is the often seen coin. This representation of traditional coin, known as a koban (小判), hangs down from the cat’s neck and again represents good wealth. Sometimes you will find offerings of pennies around the cats in Japan, much the same as you would at a shrine, and these Maneki-neko can even be used as piggy banks!
Traditionally the colours of the cats represented different things, white = good fortune, black = wards away evil, pink = love and so on. In the modern day it seems that the colour of the cats is more an aesthetic choice depending on the maker of the figures. More expensive cats will often be made of jade or gold, regular cats will be made of ceramic and the cheapest are usually made of plastic, the last is with the exception of the usually moderately priced moving plastic cats which literally beckon you in by moving it’s hand back and forth via a motorised hand.
So look out for ‘lucky cats’ around town and on your travels (maybe even tweet us a picture…) and know that they are beckoning you into shops and bringing you good luck in the home! For more information on the cats I recommend heading over to Sushi Cat.