The Fascinating History Behind the Popular ‘Waving Lucky Cat’Historians in the News
tags: material culture
The “Chinese waving cat” is well-known—visually, at least. This kitsch, often gold ornament is ubiquitous in Chinatowns and Asian stores around the world, but these cute little statues aren’t Chinese at all: They’re Japanese.
Named maneki-neko in Japanese (literally “beckoning cat”), the figurine—true to its name and contrary to popular belief—is not actually waving. In Japan, unlike in Western cultures, the way to beckon someone over to you is palm forward, fingers pointing down.
With a raised paw, pointy red ears, and coins and other accessories, maneki-neko have been bringing in luck and prosperity for centuries—and while the iconic statutes have varied origin stories, they all begin in Japan.
One legend starts with a cat born at the Gōtoku-ji temple in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo during the Edo period (1603–1868). According to temple historians, while hunting with falcons, the daimyo (regional ruler) Ii Naotaka was saved from a lightning bolt when the abbot’s pet cat Tama beckoned him into Gōtoku-ji.
Grateful to the cat for saving his life, the ruler made it a patron of the temple where it has been venerated in its very own shrine ever since.
Today the tranquil grounds of Gōtoku-ji are dotted with thousands of beckoning cat statues of varying sizes. Visitors come to see the array of white cats—commonly shaped as a Japanese bobtail, a breed that makes frequent appearances in local folklore—and pray for luck. The statues can be purchased at the temple and are usually left behind as an offering, although many take them home as a souvenir.
Whatever the precise location of the statue’s origin, one thing is for sure: The cats bring in good fortune. The reason for their prevalence seems to be linked to their real-life analogs. In 1602, an imperial decree set free all cats in Japan, intending to capitalize on the felines’ natural ability for pest control, especially in the sericulture community. After the decline of the silk trade, cats by extension remained as talismans for a business’s prosperity.
It’s more than simple pest control though—it’s taking care of the cat that reaps the rewards. “The importance of maneki-neko lies in its mythologized power to bring good fortune to the caretaker,” says Yoshiko Okuyama, professor of Japanese at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
“A Japanese proverb, neko wo koroseba nanadai tataru (If you kill a cat, it will haunt your family for seven generations) is based on a folk belief that cats are revengeful and have longevity beyond human lives,” Okuyama continues. There is a deep-rooted belief in the power of cats: Look after them, and they’ll look after you.
It remains unclear how these iconic statues spread outside the islands of Japan to become so well-known throughout Asia and the rest of the world.
According to an undergraduate research project led by Bill Maurer, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, the figurines date back to the Meiji Period (1868–1912). In an attempt to appear more polished to conservative Westerners, the Meiji government enacted the Public Morals Ordinance in 1872. The law banned phallic charms that were often on display in places of prostitution. Maneki-neko were used as replacement ornaments, and the adoption of the maneki-neko as an amulet for prosperity soon spread to other Asian countries and communities.