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Maneki-Neko, the Fortune Cat

If you’ve eaten in Japanese restaurants or have entered typical Japanese homes, you have probably seen a tricolor bobtail Japanese cat at least once in your life. In businesses, they are often found near cash registers. And in homes, they are often near and facing the front door as if it is welcoming its guests.

What’s significant and most noticeable about this cat is its paw. It is raised as if to wave to people. In Japanese and Chinese origins, the paw signifies the cat’s act of welcoming the fortune that awaits them. To us, we are simply familiar that the cat, or Maneki-Neko as the Japanese call it, is a fortune cat placed in homes and businesses for luck. But what else should we know about the Maneki-Neko, and why of all animals, the cat, or this cat in particular, is said to bring luck?

Origin of maneki-neko

There is actually no clear cut origin of the Maneki-Neko. All that historians know is that in sixth century Japan, the emperor had a cat as his pet. Cats symbolized nobility and aristocracy, as only the aristocrats had them as pets then.

Over the years, legends grew popular and up to now, no one can quite agree which is the most accurate. Here are some of the most popular legends associated with the Maneki-Neko:

1. The Geisha/Courtesan

Usugumo was a courtesan living in Yoshiwara, in eastern Tokyo. She had a pet cat that she loved so much. In the brothel where she lived, she got up in the middle of the night to enter the bathroom, but her cat tried to prevent her from leaving the room. The cat tugged on her robe as hard as it could until the house owner saw the cat. The house owner drew his sword, and cut the cat’s head on the belief that the cat was attacking Usugumo. The cat’s head flew in the air and landed on the toilet where a snake had been waiting to attack. Feeling upset after the death of the cat that saved Usugumo, the house owner gifted her with a carved wooden image of the cat in its honor. Some believe that that was how the Maneki-Neko began.

2. The Temple Cat

There was once a wealthy feudal lord who sought shelter under a tree during a storm in Western Tokyo. The tree was next to the Gotoku-ji temple. Near the temple, he saw that a cat was trying to capture his attention, beckoning him to follow it. He soon followed the cat and a moment later, the tree where he once stood was struck by lightning. Feeling blessed by the cat that saved him, the man became friends with the priests in the temple. The temple became prosperous and when the cat died, the first Maneki-Neko was presumed to have been created in its honor.

3. The Old Woman

During the 19th Century, in Imado, eastern Tokyo, an old woman experienced extreme poverty. To survive, she sold her cat. The cat then came to her in a dream and ordered her to make its image out of clay. As soon as the woman woke up, she created a statue and sold it. She made and sold more statues until it became so popular that she was taken out of poverty, and lived a prosperous and wealthy life.

These are just three legends that we’ve heard about the Maneki-Neko and may not be real life stories. While we may never know its true origin, it is no denying that the Maneki-Neko is a cultural artifact – a symbol of luck that has been around for generations and generations to come.