Maneki-Neko: Interesting History Of The Japanese Lucky Cat

You’ve likely seen the little Maneki-Neko decoration waving at you from shop windows and eateries if you’ve ever traveled to Japan or other Asian countries. The Maneki-Neko figure, also known as the greeting cat, fortunate cat, money cat, joyful cat, and calling cat, is said to bring fortune to establishments. The renowned fortunate charm has a complex history and dates back to the 17th century, but nowadays the kitsch cat is recognized all over the world.

What is the Maneki-Neko?

Photo: Stock Photos from GagliardiPhotography/Shutterstock

Popular Japanese figurines called Maneki-Neko are said to bring their owners fortune and wealth. They often feature a Japanese Bobtail cat with its paw outstretched in a welcoming gesture and are made of ceramic or plastics. Its paw swings back and forth, and some of them even have motorized limbs that allow them to wave all day. To draw people inside, Maneki-Neko is frequently exhibited at the front of establishments including hotels, pubs, and laundromats.

Characteristics of Maneki-Neko


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Maneki-Neko is frequently seen sitting down and clutching koban coins, oval gold coins from the Edo era of Japan. It has the words “sen man ryou,” which translates to “10 million gold pieces.”

In Western civilization, making a calling gesture entail extending your index finger from a closed fist while keeping your palms facing inward. The finger tries to pull someone closer to you by moving frequently in your direction (like a hook). With the palm facing up and the fingers continuously folded down and back, the identical welcoming gesture is given in Japan. The Maneki Neko’s hand is facing downward because of this. Based on what the cat’s owner wishes, the cat’s lifted arm might be either left or right. The Maneki-Neko is beckoning more consumers if its left arm is lifted, whereas riches and money are beckoned by raising its right paw.

Based on the kind of luck the owner is seeking, Maneki-Neko also comes in various colors.

What do the various colors stand for?

White: Joy and purity
Black: Protection and a deterrent to evil
Red: Immunity to disease
Gold: Good fortune and wealth
Pink: Romance and love
Green: Family Safety
Blue: Academic Success

What’s the origin of the Maneki-Neko?


A wooden mold for a maneki-neko figure from the Edo Period, 18th century. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, no known copyright restrictions)

The Maneki-Neko is commonly misunderstood for being Chinese because of how common it is in Chinatowns. But it is thought that the figure initially emerged in Japan around the latter half of the Edo era. Utagawa Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e woodblock print Flourishing Business in Balladtown made in 1852, is one of the earliest representations of the good fortune charm. The precise roots of the luck charm are still unclear. It shows the Marushime-Neko, a kind of Maneki-Neko, being marketed at Tokyo’s Senso temple.

In a news article from 1876 during the Meiji era, the Maneki-Neko was referenced once again. Additionally, there is proof that during this period, Maneki-Neko wearing kimonos was given out at an Osaka temple. And a Maneki-Neko advertisement from 1902 shows that the lucky charms rose to popularity as consumer goods at the start of the twentieth century.


Utagawa Hiroshige‘s ukiyo-e style woodblock print from the series, “Flourishing Business in Balladtown,” (Jôruri-machi hanka no zu) 1852. The top left corner depicts the maru-shime no neko, a variation of maneki-neko, being sold at a market. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)


Detail from Utagawa Hiroshige‘s ukiyo-e style woodblock print from the series, “Flourishing Business in Balladtown,” 1852. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

The Japanese Lucky Cat Legend


Maneki-neko statue at Gōtoku-ji Temple. (Photo: Stock Photos from Morumotto/Shutterstock)

Domestic cats are wonderful pets in Western society. However, cats are considered lucky and have protective qualities in Japanese folklore. This should make it obvious why the Maneki-Neko is said to symbolize a certain mythical cat.

Folklore holds that a penniless monk from the 17th century resided with his beloved bobtail cat at the little Gtoku-Ji temple in Setagaya, Tokyo. They had peaceful lives up until the arrival of Ii Naotaka, a lord samurai from the Hikone Domain. The lord sought refuge underneath a tree outside the temple when a severe storm broke up while he was on his route to go hunting. He spotted the monk’s cat standing there with one paw raised as if inviting him to enter the shrine.

A lightning strike hit the tree where he had recently been standing as he walked toward the cat. Naotaka became the temple’s patron because he was so appreciative of the cat for saving his life. He assisted in fixing it so that there was more room for the destitute monk. When the cat passed away, a monument of Maneki-Neko was erected to honor its existence, and the spot is still revered today. And it’s because of this tale that many people think waving cats are lucky charms.


Thousands of maneki-neko statues displayed in the garden of Gōtoku-ji Temple in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Stock Photos from Francesco Bonino/Shutterstock


Gōtoku-ji Temple. Photo: Stock Photos from AdrianoK/Shutterstock

Where to Find Maneki-Neko?


Maneki-neko displayed in a souvenir shop in Kyoto. (Photo: Stock Photos from Eunkyung Park/Shutterstock)

Sculptures of Maneki-Neko are offered for sale in shops and places across Japan and beyond. But the Manekineko Museum of Art in Okayama has a group of more than 700 fortunate cat sculptures from historical times if you want to observe how they changed through time.

Each year in September, cities throughout Japan hold the Manekineko Festival to honor the meowing cats. Maneki-Neko celebrations take place throughout the nation, as people throng the streets while sporting cat-themed face paint. In Tokoname City, Aichi Prefecture, there is a street called Manekineko-Dori that is lined with several ceramic cat figurines. Of course, many of the statues may be seen in Gtoku-Ji Temple, the origin of the fortunate cat tale.

If you can’t travel to Japan, you may visit Cincinnati, Ohio’s Lucky Cat Museum, where you can find more than 2,000 variations of the famous cat statue.


Manekineko-dori Street (Photo: Stock Photos from Applepy/Shutterstock)