Traveling home from the hunt one stormy day, a powerful and wealthy samurai took shelter from the heavy rain under a tree that happened to be near the entrance of a dilapidated temple. Out of the corner of his eye, the Samurai noticed a beautiful cat emerge from the temple gates. Much to his surprise, the cat raised his paw and beckoned the nobleman to come inside. A few minutes after the samurai entered the temple, lightning struck the tree under which he had stood. Astonished and grateful that the temple’s cat had saved his life, the samurai adopted the temple and brought it to prominence and prosperity through his patronage. This story is the origin legend of the Maneki Neko, the popular and beloved statuettes of the beckoning cat which have become symbols of good luck across many cultures.
Since the late Edo period (1615-1868) in Japan, engimono (auspicious objects) in the shape of sitting cats, paw raised in a welcoming gesture based on the clever and kind creature from the story above, have been used as good luck charms believed to bring prosperity and good fortune to a home or business. The Maneki Neko were originally displayed on shelves in businesses or private establishments. In the the Meiji period (1868-1912), they were exported to Korea and China, where they became extremely popular, and eventually to the rest of Asia and the West. As time passed, new attributes were added to the statuettes, and today they can be found in different colors, holding coins, and shown with their paws facing out (eastern gesture for beckoning), facing in (western version of the gesture), or even mechanically waving.
This beautiful and rare example of a wooden Maneki Neko is from the last half of the 19th century. With its left paw raised and a coin embedded in a small slot on its back, this cat was most likely displayed in a business or shop to conjure customers, wish for happiness, and to bring wealth. It is also possible that it sat in a temple as an offering to the gods. The Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo, the temple from the legend, remains consecrated today and has a shrine dedicated to the original ‘beckoning cat.’ The temple has adopted the Maneki Neko as its mascot and visitors and worshipers dedicate hundreds of these figurines to its gods and altars.
- Private Collection, USA