Maneki Neko Lucky Cats

Japan House & Home: Maneki Neko, The Beckoning Cat

Japanese Culture: Maneki Neko 招き猫

Mark Brazil

Cross-cultural communication is fraught with 'gaps' and confusion, and that is just where language is concerned. Throw gestures into that communication mix and miscommunication becomes an even greater, and potentially serious risk.

In one culture, a raised thumb can indicate good, in a second it represents a desire for a free lift, in a third it is an exceedingly rude gesture (akin to flipping someone the bird), in a fourth it represents the number one. Putting the tips of the thumb and forefinger together may indicate zero, money, delicious, a disgusting insult based on the human anatomy, or the number three (the focus being on the other three raised fingers), depending on where in the world you are.

The rock-concert goers satanic horn salute (with fist clenched and forefinger and little finger extended as the horns) may go down well in that context, and has a positive sense in India too, for warding off evil, but in parts of Mediterranean Europe and their colonial offshoots it is short-hand for a cuckold "your wife is cheating on you."

The 'two finger salute', with the palm outwards and the first two fingers raised to make a V, may be what most Japanese children do to represent 'peace' when posing to have their photograph taken, but it is perhaps derived here from the "we've won" victory symbol of occupying American forces; however, in certain Anglo-Saxon regions the very similar salute with the palm facing inwards is as rude as one can be.

The raised hand, palm outwards with all fingers spread, may be used top indicate 'stop' in some cultures, in others it suggests 'talk to the hand', but in some its as rude as there is, and the response might be a punch on the nose. In the west, when attempting to beckon someone, for example, the "come hither" gesture is to use a flat fist, palm up and beckon by crooking the first finger, a less seductive, or less aggressive usage might involve using all four fingers, but in some parts of Southeast Asia this is a deeply insulting gesture. Wise travellers keep their hands to themselves when talking - at least until they know the local customs. But that still leaves the issue of how to interpret the gestures you witness; are they good or bad?

Maneki neki beckoning cat.
Gestures are a pitfall for the unwary. This beautiful ceramic Maneki Neko dressed in kimono is now waving farewell, as it might be interpreted in the West, but instead it is beckoning inwards attempting to draw good fortune and money into a shop.
Maneki neko.
A simple beckoning cat adorns a shelf in a restaurant. Further indication of the superstitious side of Japanese people, is the belief that it beckons in money.

Body language in Japan differs remarkably from other countries and there are pitfalls for the unwary here too. One commonly seen Japanese gesture comes not from a person though, but from a cat! Cats in Japan belong to a specific and recognisable breed, the Japanese Bobtail, which has a short tail more akin to that of a rabbit than to other cat breeds. The real thing, the living Japanese Bobtail, which is very popular in calico (white with patches predominantly of black or orange), may actually be outnumbered by its iconic form, the Maneki-neko.

The Maneki-neko (literally Beckoning Cat) ,which is often made of papier-mh or ceramic, is culturally and contextually correct in its gesture, but often baffles foreign visitors the first time they encounter it, as it seems to sit there, paw raised in a farewell wave.

The beckoning gesture here involves a raised hand (or paw), with the palm outwards and the fingers curved downwards, and that is exactly what every Maneki-neko does - some of them are even electrically powered and have a moving paw! Look for the Maneki-neko at the entrances of businesses, restaurants, shops and so on, or in the genkanof homes.

Maneki neko.
A gaudily decorated Maneki Neko, with its left paw raised, is poised to beckon in customers.
Maneki neko beckoning cat.
Now in all shapes and sizes, here a "beckoning cat", no longer beckoning, sports a smug smile - indicative perhaps of business successfully concluded?

Importantly, Maneki-neko are depicted with either the right or left paw raised, though occasionally both are shown raised. Typically placed on a shelf facing the entrance of an inn or restaurant, business owners use them as a good-luck charm to attract in customers and their cash. Some believe that a Maneki-neko with its left paw raised will draw in customers, whereas one with its right paw raised attracts good fortune and money; though some associate the raised left paw with bars and pubs, and the raised right paw with shops of other kinds. The matter is further confused because in each case some people believe the opposite. Perhaps that is why some establishments use Maneki-neko with both paws raised - to save any confusion and to attract all kinds of luck, for drinkers and non-drinkers, cash and customers.

For such a common and popular cultural icon its history is surprisingly poorly known. The Maneki-neko seems to have already been popular more than 100 years ago, although folk tales about good fortune brought by a cat seem to go back much further in time, perhaps indicating an earlier origin of the Maneki-neko.

Buy hand-made ceramic maneki neko from Japan. offers a wide range of Japanese maneki neko products made in the famous kilns of Tokoname in Aichi Prefecture.

Maneki neko.
Maneki Neko come in all colours, and there is no better place to see an array of them than on arrival at Centrair Airport, at the baggage carousels.

Maneki Neko Video

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Text + images by Mark Brazil

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