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The Lucky Cat - June 2002 Newsletter

In Japan, good luck charms are everywhere - egg-shaped daruma figures, shiny go-yen coins, and graceful cranes adorn everything from homemade shrines to refrigerator doors. But one of the best-known charms is the bright-eyed Maneki Neko, or "lucky cat." Chances are you've seen one of these charming cats at the doorway of a Japanese restaurant, shop, or office. Perched on its hind legs, a Maneki Neko raises its paw in a friendly gesture of greeting and invitation. Often doubling as coin banks, Maneki Neko figurines are popular as good luck charms that attract customers to your business and visitors to your home.

The Maneki Neko is not the only famous cat in Japan. For much of the 19th Century, another cat figure called Marujimeneko was a widely-used good luck charm. Marujimeneko carried its baby on its back like a human mother. Although quite popular in their day, Marujimeneko figurines are not so easy to come by nowadays. The Sumiyoshi-Taisha temple in Osaka, though, has its own lucky cat - the Hatsutatsu-neko. Once a month for many years, the templehas sold the stately, kimono-clad cats as tokens of good luck. According to Osaka folklore, collecting 48 Hatsutatsu-neko over a four-year period will bring you great prosperity. Still popular today, some manufacturers produce enough Hatsutatsu-neko to rival some Maneki Neko factories.

But the beckoning Maneki Neko did not appear until the early 1880s. Around the same time, Japan was opening its doors to trade with the West. To enhance business relations with Europe and the United States, the Japanese government began to outlaw any cultural practices that Westerners might find objectionable.

At the time, sculptures of male genitals were popular symbols of fertility and prosperity, and common objects of worship. Public shrines featured large statues of the organs, and many households kept smaller versions on homemade shrines. Of course, many Westerners at the time (and today!) would have found this style of worship a little vulgar. So, the government outlawed the worship of genitals and the manufacture of the phallic figurines.

In the absence of the old sculptures, the Maneki Neko figurines quickly became a popular new symbol of fortune and prosperity. The Maneki Neko spread rapidly: the geisha houses were the first to put the beckoning cat in their doorways, then restaurants, and finally other businesses and homes displayed the winsome cat for passers-by to see.

So what's so lucky about a beckoning cat, anyway? The origins of the lucky cat can be traced to Japanese folklore. Many Japanese stories feature heroic animals, often faithful pets, who save the lives of humans. There are many tales about loyal cats, and several in particular have come to be closely linked with the famous figurines.

One is about a geisha named Usugumo and her beloved pet cat. One day, her usually happy cat became restless and irritable. He growled and clawed at the hem of her gown, refusing to leave her side even for a second. One of her visitors feared that the cat was attacking Usugumo and cut off the cat's head. The bodiless head flew up into the air, over the ceiling beam, and sank its teeth into a large, hissing snake. The dead head fell to the ground with the snake in its mouth. Usugumo slowly realized that the fretful cat had only been trying to warm them about the snake in the ceiling. The cat received a hero's burial, and one of Usugumo's admirers made her a statue as a tribute to her brave cat. That statue was said to be the first Maneki Neko.

A more popular Maneki Neko legend is based on the history of the Gotoku-ji Temple in Setagaya, Tokyo. A long time ago, a poor Buddhist priest looked after the run-down temple. Many storytellers say he owned a calico cat named Tama. The priest loved Tama, but with a ramshackle temple to tend and a hungry pet to feed, he was always in want of money. One rainy day, exasperated with his meager finances, he turned to his cat and wailed, "Ah, neko" - which means cat - "I give you so much but I have so little. Isn't there any way you could give something back to the temple?" The cat then walked out the crumbling temple door and began washing its face with its paws. Meanwhile, a wealthy samurai named Naotaka Li was seeking shelter from the rain. He passed by the temple and saw the cat stretching up its paw, as if beckoning. The samurai entered the temple and met the priest. Over tea, the priest and the samurai began a lengthy conversation about Buddhism. The samurai was so impressed with the priest's teachings that the two became great friends. According to another version of the story, Tama beckoned the samurai away from a spot where lightning was about to strike, saving Li's life. In any case, the samurai was so grateful to have met the priest, he adopted the priest's temple as his family temple.

For many years afterward, the temple prospered from the support of the Li clan. With a simple outstretched paw, the temple cat brought fame and wealth to his temple. Word of the lucky beckoning cat spread, and Tama became famous. In Tama's honor, the first Maneki Neko was created, and people began to display Maneki Neko statues in the hopes that their neko would bring them the same luck that Tama brought his master. To this day, the Gotoku-ji Temple is famous for its cat cemetery, guarded by a large statue of Tama. Cat owners from all over Japan come to the temple to leave Maneki Neko statues as tributes, or to pray for their beloved pets.

There really was a Naotaka Li, but did a cat really invite him into the temple? There may actually be a little truth to the tale of Tama. Many cats become uncomfortable when they see strange people approaching. To put itself at ease, a nervous cat will often wash its face. When it reaches its front paw up to rub its ear, it looks like it's beckoning someone, especially someone who is already about to approach it. The approaching human sees a beckoning cat.

To many Westerners, the raised paw of a Maneki Neko may look more like a wave than a beckoning gesture. But the Japanese beckon by holding up one hand, palm out, and waving. A Maneki Neko beckoning with its left paw is said to attract visitors. With a raised right paw, it invites wealth and good fortune. A cat with both paws in the air summons protection for the household or business that displays it. They saw that the higher the paw, the greater the invitation - and the luckier the cat!

Different colors, too, bring different kinds of luck. White cats are symbols of spiritual purity and goodness. Black cats are used to ward off evil - a far cry from the unlucky black cat of the West. In fact, black Maneki Neko figurines are now extremely popular with young women who wish to keep stalkers away. Red Maneki Neko figures are supposed to cure illnesses by exorcising evil spirits. More modern cats come in a wider range of fanciful, candy-colored hues, from pink cats that bring love and and romance to metallic gold cats that invite wealth.

But one of the most popular color schemes for a Maneki Neko is actually a more realistic one. Calico Maneki Neko figurines are considered to be the luckiest kind of all. Besides their association with the famous Tama, the white, brown, and black-furred cats are rare. That rarity makes the tri-color Maneki Nekos the most precious cats of all.

Sometimes, manufacturers decorate Maneki Neko figurines with more than just shiny colors in order to outfit them with extra luck-luring power. Some cats come in pairs, others with large litters of tiny kittens. Sometimes a cat will hold a symbol of prosperity, often a fish or a coin. Traditionally, the coin is supposed to represent a special Koban, an old- fashioned coin, worth ten million times as much as a real Koban. A cat may also carry another good luck charm, like a daruma, to boost its fortune factor.

At Mrs. Lin's Kitchen, we offer a wide variety of Maneki Neko figurines to choose from. From bell-bedecked calicos to puffy pastels, we have lucky cats in almost every shape and shade. Whether you use them as colorful coin banks, decorative displays, or gifts for your favorite cat-lovers, our Maneki Neko figurines aren't guaranteed to bring you luck, but we can definitely vouch for their ability to charm. Why not take a look?


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