The 400-year-old legends behind ‘lucky cats’

lucky cat
Image: Andrew Haimerl (ANDREWNEF), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

For many Asians around the world, “lucky cats” are a symbol of good fortune and wealth and can be seen in Chinatowns or East Asian businesses.

Called “maneki-neko,” or “beckoning cat,” their origin dates back to Japan’s Edo period (1603 – 1867).

Three Possible Beginnings

One story tells of a cat who waved a powerful lord into the nearby Gōtoku-ji Temple where he was sheltered from lightning strikes. The man was so thankful he was saved that he became the temple’s benefactor and made a figurine of the cat when it died. According to the temple’s legend, it is still believed to be the birthplace of the maneki-neko and is known for the hundreds of figures sitting on its displays.

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Another told of a geisha whose cat lost its life to save hers. In its honor, she was gifted a lucky cat statuette, according to Japan Craft.

National Geographic reported a third story that led to a variation of the lucky cat called a marushime-neko, which has a head and arm that leans out to the side. An 1852 legend told of a poor old woman who released her cat because she couldn’t afford to take care of it anymore. One night, her beloved pet appeared in her dreams and promised to bring riches if she made dolls in its image. The old woman crafted ceramic figurines and sold them at the gates of Imado Shrine where they became wildly popular. The woman never had to worry about money again and the figurines were thought to be “good fortune cats.”

One of the first depictions of a marushime-neko appeared in ukiyo-e woodblock print master Utagawa Hiroshige’s 1852 painting series, “Flourishing Business in Balladtown.”

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Characters from Plays as Merchants and Customers” from Utagawa Hiroshige’s 1852 “Flourishing Business in Balladtown” painting series. Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Details in the Design

While the stories told of various cats that all brought fortune, the cats’ designs and colors can heavily change what they represent and what type of fortune they bring. White cats stand for general luck, red for protection in health, pink for love, green for academics, purple for longevity, black for warding off evil, and later, once the figures were combined with Feng Shui, golden ones became another sign of wealth and money.

A raised right paw brings money and fortune, whereas its left paw is believed to call friendship and patrons. The inclusion of a “ryō,” or an old Japanese currency in the form of a coin, is also a sign of wealth. The coin’s inscription tends to be a variation on common phrases invoking millions of ryō, which was a great fortune at the time.

A bib or collar around its neck also shows reverence for pet cats and a golden bell represents treasure. Some variations of the cats believe that the higher the paw is raised, the greater the luck that is brought.

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maneki neko cat hat
Image: NextShark and Eastern People. (Eastern People is a collaboration with NextShark. NextShark may receive a portion of profits from sales.)

Since then, maneki-neko have appeared around the world with their signature raised paws and the belief that they will grant prosperity to anyone who uses them.

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