Explorations in Japanese Culture
If you have ever been to a Japanese or Chinese restaurant in your lifetime, then you have probably seen the Maneki Neko sitting by the register and just behind the toothpick dispenser. They are often seen holding up a paw and clutching a gold coin. These good luck charms originated in Japan and have since spread throughout the world. They invite customers into a store and bring the shop owners good fortune. Could you believe though that they gained popularity primarily after phallic good luck charms were outlawed in Japan? Read on and find out more.
These little cats make much more sense after you have heard the legend behind their creation. After all, what does a cat have ANYTHING to do with good luck and prosperity? According to the legend, in the 17th century a cat named Tama lived in a small poverty-stricken shinto shrine in Tokyo. The priest of the temple is said to have often scolded the cat for contributing nothing to the upkeep of the temple that he called home. Until one day a powerful feudal lord named Naotaka Li was returning from a hunting trip when he was caught in a violent thunderstorm. The lord took shelter under a tree near the temple, but soon saw Tama standing at the temple gate with his paw raised, beckoning the lord to enter the temple. No sooner had the lord gotten up to take a closer look at the strange cat, than lighting struck the exact tree he had been under. The tree fell onto the exact spot where Naotaka had been standing. Thus, Tama had just saved the powerful feudal lord’s life. To show his 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 at the temple, Tama was respectfully buried. The temple, named Goutokuji, still exists today.
The Maneki Neko is just another example of how older folktales and legends in Japan’s history are still represented in Japan today. While the Maneki Neko became a popular good luck talisman during the latter half of the Edo Period (1603 – 1867), it did not reach more widespread popularity with shop owners until the Meji Period (1868 – 1912). During Japan’s Edo Period special “red-light” zones called Yukaku (ゆかく）became widespread which provided prostitution along with other forms of entertainment. These “houses of amusement” (as one article put them) were equipped with a “good-luck shelf” which displayed lucky charms in the shape of the male sex organ. Many places in Japan still hold fertility festivals which involve large wooden penises being paraded through the streets. (I might write about that in a couple of weeks, we will see).
If you don’t know anything about Japanese history, the Meji Period was a time in which Japan began to open up to the rest of the western world after being closed off for most of the Edo Period. With this opening came many political and cultural reforms in order to bring Japan into the modern world. The Meiji government wanted to avoid a negative portrayal of Japan to the largely Christian western world. As part of this the production, sale and display of the phallic talisman was prohibited starting in 1872. With “good-luck shelves” left empty so the less controversial Maneki Neko figures began to gain even greater popularity.
A man who LOVES Maneki Neko, showing off all the different kinds in his cab
The Maneki Neko cat can come in many different colors, all of which mean different things. The most popular color is the tri-colored or calico cat. I found an awesome resource that shows the meanings of all the different colors of cats and the explanation of all the different items. If you are interested, please click the link. I will take a moment to summarize, but will not cover all of them. The calico is not only the most prevalent, but is also considered the most lucky. It could be that the male calico cat is somewhat of a genetic rarity. Maneki Neko is most often seen wearing a bib and red collar with bell. This represents wealth and material abundance, which can be traced back again to the Edo Period (1603 – 1867) when rich women would give there cats (an exspensive pet at the time) red chirimen collars (chirimen is a traditional Japanese weaving technique) and attach a small bell so that they could keep track of them.
The Maneki Neko are often holding a gold coin with them, called a koban (こばん), is a currency from the Edo Period. Many other items can be held by the Maneki Neko, but I will not go into detail describing them here. Instead take a look at this cool Maneki Neko Lexicon found here. As for the statues paw each raised paw has a different meaning. With the left paw lifted, the statue is beckoning customers into the store, while the right paw attracts money and good fortune. The higher the paw the greater the luck is said to be! I was particularly interested though to find that exported Maneki Nekos have their paw facing inward (as is customary to beckon in the west), but statues made for domestic use have the cat showing its palm.
I would say that the Maneki Neko is one item on a long list of things that have been brought over to America through globalization, but still remain a mystery to many. In fact, I think it is that sense of mystery that makes them such useful items in creating an authentic restuarant atmosphere. When the customer walks in they are greeted by the familiar asian mystique that they have come to associate with the exotic east. But, that is what you get for reading a blog by an Anthropology grad!