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What is a Japanese Lucky Cat?

by StarkEvan
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Often referred to as a ‘lucky cat’ in English, a maneki-neko is an iconic figurine and image of Japanese culture. Typically depicting a palico cat with a paw raised in a beckoning gesture, lucky cats are typically placed near the entrance of businesses in Japan. This serves the double-purpose of beckoning luck and potential customers to enter the storefront. However, did you know that there are many different types of lucky cats in Japan? Let’s look at the history and origin of lucky cats, as well as characteristics of their design, as well as where to place them.

The history of lucky cats

Lucky cats have their origins traced all the way back to the later part of the Edo period. While it’s exact location of origin is disputed (there are arguments for the tradition being from both Tokyo and Kyoto), lucky cats are thought to have been first mentioned in in the Bukō nenpyō (a chronology of Edo) in 1852. In 1876, during Japan’s Meiji period, the lucky cat was then mentioned again during a newspaper article. There is also evidence of lucky cats appearing in a 1902 advertisements, making clear evidence that they were popular up until the turn of the century.

The origin of lucky cat’s design

Cats have a long history of utility within Japanese society. In the old days, Japanese farmers living with cats were said to prosper without crop damage because cats would drive away rats that damage their crops. In addition to this popular use of cats in ancient Japan, there are many other theories as to how lucky cats became a popular cultural icon in Japanese culture.

There are many possible origins of lucky cat’s proposed throughout Japanese history. One is the following tale; The proprietor of a nearly bankrupt enterprise noticed a stray, hungry cat and then proceeded to share a part of his food with the wandering animal.  As a karmic response, the cat brought the owner good fortune, as visitors began to pour into the owner’s business from the cat’s friendly beckon.

Another common legend is the one that claims to have occurred where Gotokuji Temple now stands. The story takes place at a modest temple in the early 1600s, which is also the home a lowly monk. That monk had a cat named Tama with whom he shared his limited food. A wealthy nobleman was returning home from one of his hunting expeditions on a rainy evening and took refuge under a tree. That tree happened to be exactly outside the temple, where Tama was sitting and beckoning him in. A bolt of lightning struck the tree as the nobleman followed the cat into the shrine. The nobleman was so grateful to the cat for inviting him into the temple that he decided to sponsor it, giving this temple, along with the monk and Tama, a great deal of fortune.

About the appearance of lucky cats

Lucky Cat come in different colors and are made in varying styles, often incorporating different poses or mechanical moving arms. The most common colors incorporated in the design of lucky cats is gold, white, black, and red. Lucky Cat are also traditionally depicted holding a koban coin, which is a traditional Japanese oval coin used during the Edo period.

About the gesturing motion; a cultural difference between Japan and the west

Many westerners may confuse the ‘beckoning’ move lucky cats make as a gesture used to shoo patrons away. This is because of a cultural difference regarding this gesture. In Japan, waving with one’s palm face the ground is used to express a desire to approach. However, in the west this gesture is performed with the beckoners palm facing upward in the west. Understanding this cultural difference is important for comprehending the different poses of lucky cats.

What the different poses of the lucky cats mean

Maneki-neko can be found with either the right or left paw raised (and sometimes both). 

Raised left paw

A lucky cats with a raised left paw is a female cat, and is supposed to attract the attention of people. Female lucky cats are associated with bring good fortune in the evening, and are therefore most commonly seen around Japan’s nightlife establishments such as bars and izakaya. Primarily believed to beckon people. As the beckoning of customers naturally leads to business prosperity, many people choose to buy this style of lucky cat.

Raised right paw

Most lucky cats found placed in homes have their right paw raised. A lucky cat with a raised right paw is a male cat. This type of lucky cat is said to bring good fortune to it’s owner. This style of lucky cat is commonly placed near the cashier or main entrance of shops in Japan.

High raised paw

With a arm stretched long upwards, a lucky cat with a high raised paw has significant symbolism in it’s design. With a paw stretched far into the air, a lucky cat with a high raised paw brings good forth that stretches into the far future.

Both paws raised

A lucky cat with both paws raised brings it’s owner a combination of both paws. While this type of lucky cat is supposed to bring a higher amount of luck, as well as 10,000 years of longevity.

Where to place lucky cats

Where to place lucky cats in your business

Tthe type of business you have determines the best area to place your lucky cat. For businesses, storefronts, and cafe’s lucky cats can be placed somewhere visible near the entrance. By placing the lucky cat near the store entrance, this will allow customers can see it when they walk by. It is also common for lucky cats to placed in the north eastern area of establishments as well.

Where to place lucky cats in your home

The traditional location for a lucky cat within the house is near the front entrance. This is to attract the best fortune. The reasoning is that the front entrance is the most reasonable spot for people or money to enter a house. Make sure it’s positioned with in a manner that is angled towards the doorway. Placing a lucky cat in a location higher just above height of people is believed to improve its power. You should avoid putting it in a closet or other area of the house where no one comes and goes.

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