By Jean-Pierre Antonio, Suzuka International University, Japan
Despite the good luck associated with Maneki Neko, the beckoning cat, in general Japanese folk beliefs related to cats tend to be frightening. The domestic cat was believed to possess bewitching powers. In legends, a cat could transform into a woman, and there is even a legend of a vampire cat (the Vampire Cat of Nabeshima in Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan). These superstitions originated in China, where the cat was feared (perhaps because domestic cats live among humans yet retain their mystery and independence). The Japanese Buddhist belief that all animals gathered and wept at Buddha’s death except the cat and the snake, did not help the cat’s reputation. How then did the story of the cat that helped Lord Ii at Gotokuji Temple take root and lead to the creation of the much-loved Maneki Neko, which has spread around the world? How did the image of the cat turn from bad to good in Japan?
There is another animal in China that may explain this mystery. The tiger, although a powerful and terrifying creature, was also greatly respected and considered the King of the beasts. It was one of the Four Sacred Creatures and its breath was associated with the wind, one of the elemental forces of nature. It could ward off illness, demons and ill-fortune. In folk beliefs, the tiger was also considered a protector of travelers, because it was a traveler itself, roaming far and wide through the bamboo forests.
These positive beliefs about the tiger, like the negative beliefs about the common cat, were brought to Japan from China over the centuries. Some of these protective powers of the tiger may then have been transferred to at least one kind of cat, the tortoiseshell, which (because it is coloured orange, white and brown/black) is associated with a tiger, albeit a very small tiger. It is known that in Edo period Japan, ships’ captains liked to keep a tortoiseshell cat on board for good luck during their journeys. This kind of cat, like the tiger, was thought to be a protector of the traveler. The mythological ground was then already prepared for a story like that of Lord Ii receiving protection from a temple cat. Lord Ii was passing the temple when the cat’s beckoning gesture induced him to move away from a tree, thus saving him from being hit by the lightning which then struck the tree. That cat at Gotokuji, that small tiger, fulfilled its role as protector and thus the legend was born.
The next time you pass a Maneki Neko be sure to show some respect, for in his eyes you may see the tiger that hides within.
Note from Lucky Cat-Maneki Neko: A male tortoise shell cat is also considered lucky because it is rare (tortoise shell cats are usually female -as color pattern is linked to lack of an X chromosome). Maybe the Japanese Bobtail breed is a result of attempting to combine a lucky cat with a cat that can’t turn into a vampire (apparently only long-tailed cats turned into vampires)