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Latest Lucky Cat trend in Japan

3 Jun

HOT MANIKI NEKO NEWS FLASH! According to yesterday’s evening edition of the the Chunichi Newspaper, the type of maneki neko that sells the most has changed drastically since 2008. From around 2000 to 2007, 90% of the lucky cats sold in Tokoname, one of the main pottery towns in Aichi prefecture, had their left paw up (to  beckon/attract customers) and 10% had their right paw up (to beckon money).

However, in 2008, when the derivatives disaster almost wiped out the world economy (known as the Lehman Shock in Japan), everything changed. Suddenly, lucky cats with both paws up became popular, and to make sure that nobody would interpret both paws up as a gesture meaning “I give up!”, the lucky cat makers created a cat that has one paw raised slightly higher than the other paw.two paws raised

Today, 70% of lucky cats sold have both paws raised (to beckon both customers and money), 20% have the right paw raised (money) and 10% have the left paw raised (customers). The economic crisis is continuing in Japan. People and companies have adjusted their wishes, and the maneki neko, always a bellwether of the economy, has adapted to the times.

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Left paw or right? Black, white or red? : Decoding the Lucky Cat

1 Oct

What does it mean when a beckoning cat has its right paw or its left paw raised? What do the different cat colors mean? What about the coin the Lucky Cat holds, or the bib?  The meanings can vary from region to region within Japan, and some meanings have changed over time, but here is a general summary:

Tri-color Cat: (modeled after the Japanese bob-tail breed, this is a popular & traditional color for lucky cats, beckoning general good luck, wealth, prosperity)
White Cat: purity, happiness
Black Cat: safety, wards off evil and stalkers
Golden Cat: wealth and prosperity
Red Cat: protection from evil & illness (especially illness in children)
Pink Cat (a more modern color): love, relationships and romance
Green Cat (also a modern color): educations/studies

Right Paw raised: invites money and good fortune (usually to businesses)
Left Paw raised: invites customers or people
(Some suggest the right & left paws both invite business-related prosperity, but that the left paw is for businesses of the night, such as bars, geisha houses & restaurants. Use of lucky cats in homes is more recent)
Both Paws raised: invites protection of home or business
Coin: wealth and material abundance
Bib and Bell: may relate to protection, as well as wealth and material abundance (showing respect and veneration for the cat, caring for the cat and keeping it warm, displaying wealth, gold bell as symbol of treasure -either material or non-material)

While the Beckoning Cat originates in Japan*, it has also become a popular good luck figure in Chinese businesses. Among these businesses, gold beckoning cats seem to be particularly popular (gold being associated with the desired wealth and prosperity of the business). One of our blog readers pointed out the meaning of some of the writing on the coins of the Chinese Lucky Cat at left (see areas circled in red). On the cat’s right paw (to the left of the photo) is a typical Chinese phrase of hope for good fortune (something like “the source of money spreads widely”). The middle is billion in simplified Chinese (one reader suggests the Chinese character circled in the middle is “5” or “go” in Japanese, which means “50,000” when paired with the character underneath, while another reader suggests the Chinese/Kanji character means “million”, not “5”, which makes it “hundreds of millions of ryo.” However you translate it, the cat is beckoning some serious wealth!). Another reader suggests the character on the right (under the left paw) means “open fate/destiny”, or “kai un” in Japanese. Japanese kanji is based on Chinese writing, and the meaning of the writing on Japanese lucky cat coins is similar (readers of Chinese and Japanese, please feel free to verify or comment). Maneki Neko collector Don Hargrove also provides some more info on the coins in his comment in our “About” section.

The kanji at right is quite common on Japanese Maneki Neko coins (the coin is called a koban). It reads “sen man ryo”, which means 1,000 X 10,000 ryo.  So that is 10,000,000 ryo.  A ryo is the name of a gold coin that was used in Japan in the Edo period, and 10,000,000 of them was a huge fortune at that time.

 * For info on the Japanese origin of the beckoning cat, see this earlier blog post.

Maneki Neko territory: a visit to Asakusa and Imado Shrine

27 Jul

By Jean-Pierre Antonio, Suzuka International University, Japan

Twin beckoning cats welcome visitors to Imado Shrine in Asakusa, Tokyo

Asakusa is one of the main attractions in Tokyo, for both Japanese and foreign tourists. Getting there is easy. The Asakusa subway line and the Ginza subway line both stop there.

Asakusa is the name of the area that surrounds Senso-ji, a large temple complex with ancient roots. The area was also closely related to the bright lights of the entertainment world up until the post-war period. The lights were dimmed when the U.S. occupation forces imposed stricter prostitution laws and the more x-rated establishments had to close their doors. Never-the-less, today there is still plenty to see and do.

Once you pass through the famous main temple gate, called Kaminarimon, you will find a long row of small souvenir shops called Nakamise (literally means, “inside shops”). They sell all of the most popular and typical souvenirs, and some rather obscure ones too. Of course, as you browse through the shops you will see many maneki neko and that is only natural because Asakusa is the perfect environment for the maneki neko, as it has been a gathering place for buyers and sellers for hundreds of years. Merchant culture here stretches way back to the beginning of the Edo period. In fact, if you take a little stroll, away from Senso-ji, you will find a shrine connected with the very roots of maneki neko. This is Imado Shrine (jinja).

Walk back to the main gate, Kaminarimon, turn left and walk along a wide avenue. Within 10 minutes you will come to a main intersection, just before the road continues and crosses the Sumida river, Tokyo’s main water thoroughfare. Cross the intersection, turn left and you will enter the cool and shady Sumida Park, which runs along the river. Continue walking through the park for about 15-20 minutes. It might take you longer, however, as you will probably be tempted to stop and stare at the impressive sight of  Tokyo’s latest modern attraction on the other side of the river, Tokyo Sky Tree, currently the world’s tallest tower.

When you come to the end of the park, continue walking along Edo Avenue, and in about 5-10 minutes you will come to a spot where another road splits off to the left from Edo Avenue. At this point, it’s best to stop somebody and ask them where Imado Shrine is. It’s close, but a little difficult to explain clearly here. Once you’re there, though, you’ll know right away that you have arrived in maneki neko territory. Pass through the tori gate and you will see masses of round, wooden votive tablets (ema). These are the wishes of shrine visitors.

Imado shrine (note the boards hung with ema prayer plaques on either side of the path before the shrine)

Imado Shrine is known for its matchmaking powers, so many messages are related to finding the right partner. As you approach the shrine, you will see two granite maneki neko sitting on a plinth at the base of the shrine stairs. At the top of the stairs there are two very large maneki neko standing at the entrance to the shrine [see top photo]. A bit intimidating! Go back down the stairs and to the right is a small shrine sales office where you can buy the ema and also different kinds of charms, all showing the maneki neko image.

Maneki Nekos on display near the office at Imado Shrine

Scene from the video played at Imado Shrine

Next to the office there is another small building containing a varied and extremely colourful collection of maneki neko dolls, creating their own sacred space. There is also a small TV which plays a dvd of the maneki neko dance, performed by some shrine maidens and a TV personality, whose name I forget. It’s bizarre and hilarious and, of course, very cute. All in all, it’s a true hot-spot for maneki neko. But why?

Imado Shrine is in an area called Imado, and in days long gone, many potters lived there, and they produced a kind of pottery that came to be known as Imado ware. Some of the earliest examples of maneki neko were made here, so this is, in a way, the birthplace of maneki neko. I can just imagine some sharp merchant at Asakusa back in the Edo period hearing one of the legends of the maneki neko, then going to nearby Imado and commisioning a potter to make some figures of a cat with an upraised paw to sell in his shop. The rest is history. From Imado and Asakusa, maneki neko has spread around the world.

Watering can beckoning cats, some of the unique maneki nekos for sale in Asakusa

Unfortunately, there are no potters living in Imado anymore, but back at Senso-ji, in the Nakamise area, you will find a shop called Sukeroku. It is the second from the end on the right, close to Senso-ji temple, and if you don’t slow down you might just pass it by, which would be really unfortunate. The shop has been run by the same family for about 150 years, since the end of the Edo period, and they sell all sorts of small, handmade ceramic figures. Some are replicas of toys from the Edo period and some are tiny scenes of Edo period street-life. In a space that allows no more than two customers at a time, you can see hundreds of these tiny figures lining the shelves. Of course, there are many variations of the maneki neko –some very humorous, some I’d never seen anywhere else. Spend some time in the shop and you will step back in time to the days when all of Edo’s citizens came to Asakusa to pray and play and eat and laugh, and perhaps, also buy a maneki neko to take back to their homes.

Maneki Neko Matsuri

2 Dec

Photos by Jean-Pierre Antonio, Suzuka, Japan

Each year at the end of September, the city of Seto, Japan (located about 25 kilometres northeast of Nagoya) celebrates Maneki Neko, the cat that beckons good fortune. Lucky Cats appear all over the city (for sale in shops and on tables along the streets, on display in restaurants and other venues), children as well as adults roam the streets with their faces painted like cats, and a general atmosphere of fun and good humour prevails (with all the painted faces, the mood is reminiscent of North American Halloween).

As well as hosting the Maneki Neko Matsuri (or festival), Seto is home to the Maneki Neko Museum, where over 1000 beckoning cats can be viewed all year. Seto is also one of Japans oldest and most renowned pottery towns (dating back over 1000 years). Seto kilns have been producing a distinctive style of finely crafted beckoning cat statue since the 1890s (more elegant and slim than the plump round-faced cat holding a gold coin, which was first produced in the neighbouring city of Tokoname in the 1950s).

Lucky wind chime

28 Aug

For centuries in Japan, the tinkle of a wind chime has brought to mind the cooling sound of water on a hot summer day. Wind chimes (or wind bells) were originally brought from China to Japan around 400 BC. Buddhists hung them from the eaves of temples, pagodas and other religious buildings to attract beneficial spirits and drive away malevolent ones. Eventually they were adopted by the secular world, and people began to hang them in their homes and gardens for their pleasing sound and to call good luck. The wind chime below combines the good luck associated with a wind chime and the luck attracting power of Maneki Neko, the beckoning cat.

This Beckoning Cat wind chime comes from Tokoname, Aichi prefecture, near Nagoya. The head is a miniature of the giant Maneki Neko head that has become a civic symbol in Tokoname. The five yen coin (go ‘en), which is used to attach the body to the head, is also a good luck symbol or charm (a Japanese word for “fate” is pronounced “en” and “go en” means something like “fortunate/good fate”).

So, this wind chime combines three different good luck amulets (wind chime, Beckoning Cat, go ‘en coin) to bring the owner exceptional good fortune!

With thanks to Jean-Pierre Antonio, Suzuka International University

In Bamboo Groves Did the Maneki Neko Roam?

24 Apr

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)

The Road to Gotokuji

13 Apr

There are several legends about the origin of Maneki Neko, the beckoning cat statue that is said to bring good luck to its owner. The most widely accepted story goes back to a poor temple in early 17th century Japan (and is documented in temple records).

The temple, which became known as Gotokuji, was located in the village of Setagaya near Edo (now Tokyo). Although the temple priest barely had enough food for himself, he took in a stray white cat, who he called Tama. The situation at the temple worsened, and one day, the priest told Tama that he might be better off leaving and fending for himself. The cat did not go far, however. Tama sat beside the road near the temple preening himself (the way cats often do) as a storm began to brew. A samurai Lord and his men stopped to shelter under a nearby tree. When the samurai, Lord Ii Naotaka of Hikone, saw Tama’s paw raised as if beckoning to him, he approached the cat. As the samurai and his men moved away from the tree, it was struck by lightning. The cat had saved their lives. Lord Ii followed Tama to the temple, where he and his men were welcomed by the priest.

Grateful, and impressed by the priest, Lord Ii became the patron of the temple. Thanks to the lucky cat, the temple prospered. Later, when Tama died, he was given a place of honour in the temple cemetery, and the first beckoning cat statue was created in his memory. Word spread, and people began placing figurines of beckoning cats in their homes, shops and temples, believing it would bring them good luck and prosperity. Over time, the Lucky Cat statue became popular in China and eventually other countries as well.

Gotokuji Temple still exists, though what was once the village of Setagaya is now a suburb of Tokyo. Under the patronage of the Ii clan, Gotokuji expanded, and now includes a large graveyard where many important members of the Ii family are buried, a large Butsuden Buddha hall, a worship hall, a small older temple dedicated to Maneki Neko, a newly built wooden pagoda decorated with carved Maneki Nekos, and an office where Maneki Nekos statues and wooden emas (votive plaques) can be purchased.

(Small Maneki Neko temple on the large grounds of present-day Gotokuji)

(Gotokuji Pagoda -decorated with carved Maneki Neko)

The statues (purchased at the temple office) are customarily left as a kind of offering on outdoor shelves, which are filled with white cat statues (though the cats may also be kept as souvenirs).

Wishes or prayers are written on the back of the emas and hung on an outdoor board. People may pray or wish for any desire, but concern for pet cats is a special focus at Gotokuji (the temple’s graveyard is even said to have a section for the graves of beloved cats).

In Lord Ii’s day, it would have been a long horseback ride (or an even longer walk) from Edo to Setagaya. Today, it is a 20 minute train ride along the Odakyu Line from Shinjuku to Gotokuji station, then about a 15-20 minute walk from the station to Gotokuji Temple.

Emerging from the modern train station beside a Macdonalds Restaurant, it’s hard to imagine the old narrow dirt road that must have passed by the temple in Lord Ii’s time.

But walking along the bustling row of small shops following the Beckoning Cat street banners, there are glimpses of a past way of life in the laughter exchanged between neighbouring shopkeepers, an old woman serving noodles in a family-run restaurant, futons draped over a fence to air beside the road….

Turning off the busy road and away from the banners, there is a sense of stepping back into a less hurried time and onto a kind of pilgrimage. After walking along a quiet back street of modest houses and gardens, you eventually come alongside a tall white wall with the tops of grave markers visible beyond. Follow the wall until you come to the gate, and you have reached Gotokuji Temple, the home of the first Maneki Neko. Whether or not you believe in the magic of Maneki Neko, you know you have arrived some place special.

(Entrance gate at Gotokuji Temple, Setagaya, Tokyo)