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The maneki-neko (Japanese: 招き猫?, literally "beckoning cat") is a common Japanese figurine (lucky charm, talisman), usually made of ceramic in modern times, which is often believed to bring good luck to the owner. The figurine depicts a cat (traditionally a calico Japanese Bobtail) beckoning with an upright paw, and is usually displayed—often at the entrance—in shops, restaurants, pachinko parlors, and other businesses. Some of the sculptures are electric or battery-powered and have a slow-moving paw beckoning. The maneki-neko is sometimes also called the welcoming cat, lucky cat, money cat, happy cat, or fortune cat in English.
Maneki-neko come in different colors, styles, and degrees of ornateness. Common colors are white, black, gold and sometimes red. In addition to ceramic figurines, maneki-neko can be found as keychains, piggy banks, air fresheners, house-plant pots, and miscellaneous ornaments, as well as large statues. Maneki-neko are sometimes called the "Chinese lucky cat", as it is also increasingly popular among Chinese merchants.
To some Westerners (Italians and Spaniards are notable exceptions) it may seem as if the maneki-neko is waving rather than beckoning. This is due to the difference in gestures and body language recognized by some Westerners and the Japanese. The Japanese beckoning gesture is made by holding up the hand, palm out, and repeatedly folding the fingers down and back up, thus the cat's appearance. Some maneki-neko made specifically for some Western markets will have the cat's paw facing backwards, in a beckoning gesture familiar to more Westerners.
Maneki-neko can be found with either the right or left paw raised (and sometimes both). The significance of the right and left raised paw differs with time and place. A common belief is that the left paw raised brings in customers, while a right paw brings good luck and wealth, although some believe the opposite, or that one paw is for luck and the other for wealth. Another interpretation says that a raised left paw attracts money, while a raised right paw protects it. Still others say that a left paw raised is best for drinking establishments, the right paw for other stores (those who hold their liquor well are called "left-handed" (hidari-kiki) in Japanese). Yet another interpretation is that right is for home and left for business.
It is commonly believed the higher the raised paw, the greater the luck. Consequently, over the years maneki-neko's paw has tended to appear ever higher. Some use the paw height as a crude method of gauging the relative age of a figure. Another common belief is that the higher the paw, the greater the distance good fortune will come from.
Some maneki-neko feature battery- or solar-powered moving arms endlessly engaged in the beckoning gesture.
The most common color is white, followed by black and gold, and occasionally red is used as well. These are traditional for Maneki-neko. Some consider white to be for good luck generally, black for good health, and gold for monetary good fortune.
Maneki-neko usually have some sort of decoration around their neck. This can be a neckerchief or a scarf but the most common attire is a collar, bell and decorative bib. These items are most likely in imitation of what was common attire for cats in wealthy households during the Edo period. Red collars made from a red flower, the hichirimen, were popular and small bells were attached for decoration and to keep track of the cat's whereabouts.
The bib might also be related to the bibs often decorating statues of the Buddhist divinity called Jizō Bosatsu in Japan. Protective statues of Jizō can be found guarding the entrances to Japanese shrines and graveyards. Jizō is the protector of sick and dying children, and grateful parents of children recovered from illness will place a bib around Jizō as a gift of thankfulness.
Maneki-neko are sometimes depicted holding a coin, usually a gold coin called a koban (小判?), used during the Edo period in Japan. A koban was worth one ryō, another early Japanese monetary unit, though the koban most maneki-neko hold is indicated to be worth 'ten million ryō' (千万両 senmanryō?), an extraordinary sum of money. A ryō can be imagined as worth a thousand dollars, although the value of the ryō, like the value of the dollar, varied considerably. In Japanese, the idiom 'koban to cats' (猫に小判 neko ni koban?) is a traditional saying equivalent to the Western 'pearls before swine'.
The coin ties into the cat's part in bringing good fortune and wealth. It is not surprising then that maneki-neko are often fashioned as coin banks, a practice which goes back at least to the 1890s, much like the Western piggy bank.
Sometimes pennies and other small coin denominations are left on the maneki-neko as offerings. This practice is somewhat similar to that of leaving coins in a fountain or wishing well.
Antique examples of maneki-neko may be made of carved wood or stone, handmade porcelain or cast iron. Modern examples maneki-neko are typically made of ceramic, but can also be made of other materials, including plastic, wood and papier-mâché. Expensive maneki-neko may be made of jade or gold. The moving-arm type are usually made of plastic.
Some believe the maneki-neko originated in Osaka, while some insist it was Tokyo (then named Edo). Maneki-neko first appeared during the later part of the Edo period in Japan. In 1876, during the Meiji era, it was mentioned in a newspaper article, and there is evidence that kimono-clad maneki-neko were distributed at a shrine in Osaka during this time. A 1902 advertisement for maneki-neko indicates that by the turn of the century they were popular.
Beyond this, the exact origins of maneki-neko are uncertain, though several folktales offer explanations.
Others have noted the similarities between the maneki-neko's gesture and that of a cat washing its face. There is a Japanese belief that a cat washing its face means a visitor will soon arrive. This belief may in turn be related to an even older Chinese proverb that states that if a cat washes its face, it will rain. Thus, it is possible a belief arose that a figure of a cat washing its face would bring in customers.
Maneki-neko is the subject of a number of folktales. Here are five of the most popular, explaining the cat's origins:
The stray cat and the shop: The operator of an impoverished shop (or inn, tavern, temple, etc.) takes in a starving, stray cat despite barely having enough to feed himself. In gratitude, the cat takes up a station outside the establishment and beckons in new visitors, bringing prosperity as a reward to the charitable proprietor. Ever after, the "beckoning cat" has been a symbol of good luck for small business owners.
The nobleman-warning cat: One day a luminary passed by a cat, which seemed to wave to him. Taking the cat's motion as a sign, the nobleman paused and went to it. Diverted from his journey, he realized that he had avoided a trap that had been laid for him just ahead. Since that time, cats have been considered wise and lucky spirits. Many Japanese shrines and homes include the figurine of a cat with one paw upraised as if waving, hence the origin of maneki-neko, often referred to as kami-neko in reference to the cat's kami or spirit. Depending on version, the story may cast the nobleman as one of various Japanese emperors, as well as historical characters such as Oda Nobunaga and the samurai Ii Naotaka.
The temple cat: This similar story goes that a wealthy feudal lord named Ii Naotaka was taking shelter under a tree near Gōtoku-ji temple (in Setagaya, Tokyo) during a thunderstorm. The lord saw the temple priest's cat beckoning to him and followed; a moment later the tree was struck by lightning. The wealthy man became friends with the poor priest and the temple became prosperous. When the cat died, supposedly the first maneki-neko was made in his honor.
The beheaded cat: A young woman named Usugumo, living in Yoshiwara in eastern Tokyo, had a cat, much beloved by her. One day, she had a visit from her friend, a swordsman. The cat suddenly went frantic, clawing at the woman's kimono persistently. Thinking the cat was attacking her, the swordsman severed the head of the cat, which flew through the air, then lodged its teeth into and killed a venomous snake on the support boards above, where it had been waiting to strike the woman. After the incident, Usugumo was devastated by the death of her companion, and would neither eat nor sleep. The swordsman felt guilty for what he had done and sad for the woman. He went to a woodcarver, who was called "the best in the land", who made him a carving of the cat, a paw raised in greeting. This cat image then became popular as the maneki-neko. When he gave the carving to her, she was overjoyed and lived her life again instead of suffering. A variant has the woman as a geisha, the swordsman replaced with her okiya's (geisha house's) owner, and the wooden cat made by a client of the courtesan lady.
The old woman's cat: An old woman, living in Imado in eastern Tokyo, was forced to sell her cat due to extreme poverty. Soon afterwards the cat appeared to her in a dream. The cat told her to make its image in clay. She did as instructed, and soon afterward sold the statue. She then made more, and people bought them as well. These maneki-neko were so popular she soon became prosperous and wealthy.
In modern Japanese culture, maneki-neko can be frequently found in rooms on the third floors of buildings, due to the auspicious qualities associated with the number three. Modern Japanese folklore suggests that keeping a talisman of good fortune, such as the maneki-neko, in bedrooms and places of study will bring about favorable results and life successes.
Due to its popularity in Chinese communities (including Chinatowns in the United States) the maneki-neko is frequently mistaken for being Chinese in origin rather than Japanese, and is incorrectly referred to as a "Chinese lucky cat"  or jīnmāo ("golden cat").
As a cultural icon the maneki-neko has influenced many other characters and cultural imagery.
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