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Legend of Maneki Neko (Lucky Cat)

While it is believed that Maneki Neko first appeared during the later part of the Edo period (1603–1867) in Japan the earliest documentary evidence comes from the 1870s, during Japan's Meiji Era. It is mentioned in a newspaper article in 1876 and there is evidence kimono-clad Maneki Neko were distributed at a shrine in Osaka during this time. An ad from 1902 advertising Maneki Neko indicates that by the turn of the century they were popular.

A frequent attribution to several Japanese emperors, as well as to Oda Nobunaga and samurai Ii Naotaka, is that one day the luminary passed by a cat, which seemed to wave to him. Taking the cat's motion as a sign, the unknown nobleman paused and went to it. Diverted from his journey, he realized that he had avoided a trap that had been laid for him just ahead. Since that time, cats have been considered wise and lucky spirits. Many Japanese shrines and homes include the figurine of a cat with one paw upraised as if waving—hence the origin of Maneki Neko, often referred to as Kami Neko in reference to the cat's kami or spirit.

Others have noted the similarities between the Maneki Neko's gesture and that of a cat washing its face. There is a Japanese belief that a cat washing its face means a visitor will soon arrive. This belief may in turn be related to an even older Chinese proverb that states that if a cat washes its face, it will rain. Thus it is possible a belief arose that a figure of a cat washing its face would bring in customers.

Legends and stories

Maneki Neko is the subject of a number of legends. Here are three of the most popular, explaining the cat's origins:

The Temple Cat: This story goes that a wealthy feudal lord was taking shelter under a tree near Gotoku-ji temple (in Western Tokyo) during a thunderstorm. The lord saw the temple priest's cat beckoning to him and followed; a moment later the tree was struck by lightning. The wealthy man became friends with the poor priest and the temple became prosperous. When the cat died, supposedly the first Maneki Neko was made in his honor.

The Courtesan: A courtesan named Usugumo, living in Yoshiwara, in eastern Tokyo, kept a cat, much beloved by her. One night, the cat began tugging at her kimono. No matter what she did, the cat persisted. The owner of the brothel saw this, and believing the cat bewitched, cut its head off. The cat's head then flew to the ceiling where it killed a snake, ready at any moment to strike. Usugumo was devastated by the death of her companion. To cheer her up, one of her customers made her a wooden likeness of her cat as a gift. This cat image then became popular as the Maneki Neko.

The Old Woman: An old woman living in Imado (eastern Tokyo) was forced to sell her cat due to extreme poverty. Soon afterwards the cat appeared to her in a dream. The cat told her to make its image in clay. She did as instructed, and soon afterward sold the statue. She then made more, and people bought them as well. They were so popular she soon became prosperous and wealthy.

View our selection of lucky cat favors and statues. They make the perfect gift!