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The maneki-neko is a common Japanese figurine (lucky charm, talisman), usually made of ceramic in modern times, which is often believed to bring good luck to the owner. The figurine depicts a cat (traditionally a calico Japanese Bobtail) beckoning with an upright paw, and is usually displayed—often at the entrance—in shops, restaurants, pachinko parlors, and other businesses. Some of the sculptures are electric or battery-powered and have a slow-moving paw beckoning. The maneki-neko is sometimes also called the welcoming cat, lucky cat, money cat, happy cat, or fortune cat in English.
Maneki-neko come in different colors, styles, and degrees of ornateness. Common colors are white, black, gold and sometimes red. In addition to ceramic figurines, maneki-neko can be found as keychains, piggy banks, air fresheners, house-plant pots, and miscellaneous ornaments, as well as large statues. Maneki-neko are sometimes mistakenly called the "Chinese lucky cat", as it is also increasingly popular among Chinese merchants.
To some Westerners (Italians and Spaniards are notable exceptions) it may seem as if the maneki-neko is waving rather than beckoning. This is due to the difference in gestures and body language recognized by some Westerners and the Japanese. The Japanese beckoning gesture is made by holding up the hand, palm out, and repeatedly folding the fingers down and back up, thus the cat's appearance. Some maneki-neko made specifically for some Western markets will have the cat's paw facing backwards, in a beckoning gesture familiar to more Westerners.
Maneki-neko can be found with either the right or left paw raised (and sometimes both). The significance of the right and left raised paw differs with time and place. A common belief is that the left paw raised brings in customers, while a right paw brings good luck and wealth, although some believe the opposite, or that one paw is for luck and the other for wealth. Another interpretation says that a raised left paw attracts money, while a raised right paw protects it. Still others say that a left paw raised is best for drinking establishments, the right paw for other stores (those who hold their liquor well are called "left-handed" (hidari-kiki) in Japanese). Yet another interpretation is that right is for home and left for business.
It is commonly believed the higher the raised paw, the greater the luck. Consequently, over the years maneki-neko's paw has tended to appear ever higher. Some use the paw height as a crude method of gauging the relative age of a figure. Another common belief is that the higher the paw, the greater the distance good fortune will come from.
The most common color is white, followed by black and gold, and occasionally red is used as well. These are traditional for Maneki-neko. Some consider white to be for good luck generally, black for good health, and gold for monetary good fortune.
Maneki-neko usually have some sort of decoration around their neck. This can be a neckerchief or a scarf but the most common attire is a collar, bell and decorative bib. These items are most likely in 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 and small bells were attached for decoration and to keep track of the cat's whereabouts.
The bib might also be related to the bibs often decorating statues of the Buddhist divinity called Jizō Bosatsu in Japan. Protective statues of Jizō can be found guarding the entrances to Japanese shrines and graveyards. Jizō is the protector of sick and dying children, and grateful parents of children recovered from illness will place a bib around Jizō as a gift of thankfulness.
Some believe the maneki-neko originated in Osaka, while some insist it was Tokyo (then named Edo). Maneki-neko first appeared during the later part of the Edo period in Japan. In 1876, during the Meiji era, it was mentioned in a newspaper article, and there is evidence that kimono-clad maneki-neko were distributed at a shrine in Osaka during this time. A 1902 advertisement for maneki-neko indicates that by the turn of the century they were popular.
Beyond this, the exact origins of maneki-neko are uncertain, though several folktales offer explanations.
Others have noted the similarities between the maneki-neko's gesture and that of a cat washing its face. There is a Japanese belief that a cat washing its face means a visitor will soon arrive. This belief may in turn be related to an even older Chinese proverb that states that if a cat washes its face, it will rain. Thus, it is possible a belief arose that a figure of a cat washing its face would bring in customers.