There are countless superstitions involving cats, most of them focused on the bad luck that they supposedly bring. In Japan and other Asian countries, however, the cat is a symbol of good fortune.
THE BECKONING CAT
If you've ever walked in to a Chinese or Japanese business and noticed a figure of a cat with an upraised paw, you've met Maneki Neko (pronounced MAH-ne-key NAY-ko). "The Beckoning Cat" is displayed to invite good fortune, a tradition that began with a legendary Japanese cat many centuries ago.
According to legend, that cat, called Tama, lived in a poverty-stricken temple in 17th-century Tokyo. The temple priest often scolded Tama for contributing nothing to the upkeep of the temple. Then one day, a powerful feudal lord named Naotaka Ii was caught in a rainstorm near the temple while returning home from a hunting trip. As the lord took refuge under a big tree, he noticed Tama with her paw raised, beckoning to him, inviting him to enter the temple's front gate. Intrigued, the lord decided to get a closer look at this remarkable cat. Suddenly, the tree was struck by lightning and fell on the exact spot where Naotaka had just been standing. Tama had saved his life! In gratitude, Naotaka made the little temple his family temple and became its benefactor. Tama and the priest never went hungry again. After a long life, Tama was buried with great respect at the renamed Goutokuji temple. Goutokuji still exists, housing dozens of statues of Beckoning Cat.
(Image credit: Flickr user Shoko Muraguchi)Gotokuji temple still has a calico cat, as well as many Maneki Nekos.LUCKY CHARMS
Figures of Maneki Neko became popular in Japan under shogun rule in the 19th century. At that time, most "houses of amusement" (brothels) and many private homes had a good-luck shelf filled with lucky charms, many in the shape of male sexual organs. When Japan began to associate with Western countries in the 1860s, the charms began to be seen as vulgar. In an effort to modernize Japan and improve its image, Emperor Meiji outlawed the production, sale, and display of phallic talismans in 1872. People still wanted lucky objects, however, so the less controversial Maneki Neko figures became popular.
Eventually the image of the lucky cat spread to China and then to Southeast Asia. How popular did the Beckoning Cat become? In Thailand, the ancient goddess of prosperity, Nang Kwak, was traditionally shown kneeling with a money bag on her lap. Now she's usually shown making the cat's raised-hand gesture and occasionally sporting a cat's tail.
In Europe and North America, images of Maneki Neko can be found in Asian-owned businesses, such as Chinese restaurants. And back in Japan, a new cat icon adorns clothing, toys, and various objects: Hello Kitty -a literal translation of Maneki Neko, or "Beckoning Cat."
MANEKI NEKO FACTS
* Sometime Maneki Neko has his left paw up, sometimes the right. The left paw signifies that the business owner is inviting in customers. The right invites in money or good fortune.
* Most Maneki Nekos are calico cats; the male calico is so rare it's considered lucky in Japan. But Maneki Neko may be white, black, red, gold, or pink to ward off illness, bad luck, or evil spirits and bring financial success, good luck, health, and love.
* Maneki Nekos made in Japan show the palm of the paw, imitating the manner in which Japanese people beckon. American Maneki Nekos show the back of the paw, reflecting the way we gesture "come here."
* The higher Maneki Neko holds his paw, the more good fortune is being invited.
___________________The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Unstoppable Bathroom Reader.
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