What is the Maneki Neko?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Maneki Neko, or beckoning cat, is a Japanese sculptural good luck charm which has spread to many other parts of the world, particularly those with a large Japanese population. By tradition, keeping a Maneki Neko in the home or business is supposed to bring good fortune and money to the owner. Many stores which specialize in Japanese cultural items stock beckoning cats, in a range of colors, sizes, and materials. The most common is a ceramic tri-colored cat in white, brown, and amber.

Woman posing
Woman posing

The origins of the Maneki Neko appear to lie in the mid 1800s, between the late Edo period and the early Meiji. Cats, especially tricolored cats, have played an important role in Japanese culture for centuries, often serving as good luck charms or indicators of good fortune. In Japan, it is believed that when a cat washes its face, company will come to visit. The early beckoning cats were actually depicted washing their faces.

By the early 1900s, the Maneki Neko had become an extremely popular sculpture in Japan, and the cats began to appear raising their paws in a welcoming gesture. In Japan, the cats are sold with their paws facing outwards, mimicking the gesture of welcome used by Japanese people. Outside of Japan, the cats may face the backs of their paws forward, in a gesture more familiar to Westerners. According to popular belief, a cat with a raised left paw is supposed to bring customers, and a lifted right paw will bring about money and good fortune. In some cases, both paws are raised.

There are a number of alternate names in English for the Maneki Neko, including Welcoming Cat, Lucky Cat, Fortune Cat, and Money Cat. Although the cats are often produced in a tricolored bobtail pattern, they can also be found in colors like pure white or black, red, or even pink. Some producers make the cats in other fanciful colors as well.

Often, several items are depicted along with the cat in a Maneki Neko sculpture. Typically, the cat is wearing a small red collar and a bell, and it may also be wearing a bib. The collars are a reference to the collars traditionally worn by cats kept by courtesans. The cat may also be seen holding a large coin, or sitting on money, especially when its right paw is raised. Typically, a Maneki Neko is made from ceramic or porcelain, although wood, paper mache, and plastic are not unheard of. Some cats are even motorized so that their paws move in a welcoming gesture.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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