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What is the meaning of Maneki Neko cat?

Updated on September 4, 2017
Gold Maneki Neko
Gold Maneki Neko | Source

Japanese Fortune Cat

What is Maneki Neko?

Maneki Neko is the name for Japanese Fortune Cat. A Japanese cultural icon, it is regarded as a symbol of good luck, prosperity and success.


Traditionally, the cat figurine is adorned with a decorative bib, collar and bell, with one paw raised and often holding a coin in the other paw.

The bib, collar and bell are most likely an imitation of what was common attire for cats in wealthy households during the Edo period. Red collars made from a red flower, the hichirimen, were popular then and small bells were attached for decoration and to keep track of the cat’s whereabouts.

The coin is known as a koban, used during the Edo period in Japan. A koban was worth one ryō, another early Japanese monetary unit, though the koban most Maneki Neko hold is indicated to be worth ten million ryō.

Maneki Nekos are often made of ceramic, papier mache or sometimes wood.

Maneki Neko in a beckoning gesture more familiar to Westerners.  The coin is depicted by the $ sign instead of the traditional koban coin.
Maneki Neko in a beckoning gesture more familiar to Westerners. The coin is depicted by the $ sign instead of the traditional koban coin. | Source

The gesture

Due to its appearance, Maneki Neko is also known as Beckoning Cat. The Japanese beckons by holding up the hand, palm out, and repeatedly folding the fingers down and back up. However, to the Westerners, it may seem as if the Maneki Neko is waving rather than beckoning. Hence, some of those made for Western markets will have the cat’s paw facing backwards, in a beckoning gesture more familiar to Westerners.

Significance of gesture

Maneki Neko is usually depicted with either the right or left paw raised. The significance of the right and left raised paw differs with time and place. But it is common belief that the left paw raised brings in customers, while a right paw brings good luck and wealth.

Color and its meaning

The traditional Maneki Neko is tri-colored, white with random black and orange patches.

Other common colors are black, red and gold.

It is widely believed that:-

White – represent purity and positive things

Black - for health as well as to ward off evil spirits and stalkers

Red - protect from evil spirits and illness

Gold – immense wealth and prosperity

Red Maneki Neko
Red Maneki Neko | Source
Black Maneki Neko
Black Maneki Neko | Source
Decoration around the cat's neck.
Decoration around the cat's neck. | Source
The koban coin indicative of ten million ryo.
The koban coin indicative of ten million ryo. | Source
Instead of a coin, the cat is holding a sign with auspicious wordings on it.
Instead of a coin, the cat is holding a sign with auspicious wordings on it. | Source

Legends of Maneki Neko

The Japanese Fortune Cat is the subject of a number of legends. The most common one originates from the legend of the Gotoku-ji Temple.

The story is set in the 17th century. There was a dilapidated temple, the Gotoku-ji temple, in Western Tokyo. Therein lived a poor old priest and his cat, Tama.

One day a Samurai lord, while taking shelter under a tree near the temple during a thunderstorm, noticed Tama cleaning its face with its paw. As the cat's gesture seemed to be beckoning him, he left his shelter and walked towards the cat. Moments later, lightning brought the tree crashing down. The beckoning cat had saved his life.

In gratitude for the cat saving his life, the Samurai used his influence to bring many wealthy people to the Temple and it soon became prosperous.

Tama had not only saved a life but also relieved the old priest of the burden of poverty. When it died, it was buried with great ceremony. A statue was made in its likeness, reflecting the beckoning raised paw that had brought so much good fortune and prosperity to its owner.

As words of the event spread, people began placing figurines of cats with raised paws in their homes, shops and temples, believing that it would bring them good luck and prosperity – hence it is said to be the origin of Maneki Neko.

Maneki Neko Today

Since 1990s, the Japanese Fortune Cat has become a very popular symbol of good luck and can be easily found in Asian shops and restaurants.

The figurine has also been adapted to many modern variations and comes in different colors and styles. Nowadays the Maneki Neko’s image is also used for coin banks, key chains, air fresheners, and many other novelties or souvenirs.

Most of the fortune cats that we see nowadays are made in China or Taiwan. Good to have one at home to bring luck.

I personally still prefer the traditional design and purchase only the Made-in-Japan Maneki Neko. Images in this hub are from my own collection of 80+ Maneki Nekos, all from Japan.

Note: Please read Maneki Nekos with Golden Hammer and Daruma Doll for more information on this lucky icon.

© 2010 pinkytoky


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    • pinkytoky profile image

      pinkytoky 3 years ago from Singapore

      Hi missy, even if the arm is not moving, it is still a lucky symbol.

    • profile image

      missy 3 years ago

      I bought my cat in a store and the arm does not move with batteries. Will this have any influence on its luck?

    • pinkytoky profile image

      pinkytoky 6 years ago from Singapore

      Traditionally, it is the left paw for business. But I don't see any problem in using both left and right paws.

    • profile image 6 years ago

      hi can I use both cats with the left and right hand waving in a business?

    • pinkytoky profile image

      pinkytoky 6 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Denmarkguy, the Chinese like lucky symbols, regardless of its origins. Most of the shops in Singapore also display fortune cats. However, nowadays it is very difficult to get nice, genuine Maneki Neko that are made in Japan.

    • Denmarkguy profile image

      Peter Messerschmidt 6 years ago from Port Townsend

      Very interesting information-- thank you. I was always thinking the "Lucky Cat" was a Japanese symbol, but I have so often seen it in Chinese places of business, especially here in the USA. Thank you for explanation.