I still remember walking in the famous street mall of Szeged, where I spent my years as a university student, and finding an Asian novelty and clothes store there, with all sorts of goods that I had never seen before: Indian saris, Nepali sarongs, Chinese tea sets and various other items. But I only had eyes for one thing in the shopwindow: the golden coloured beckoning cat figurine. Whenever I walked by the shop, I stopped and looked at it. My friends noticed my infatuation and bought me the cat for my birthday. I still have it; my mum thinks it’s hideous, but I still adore it, and I already know it’s name: maneki-neko, the cat beckoning luck.
It is not clear exactly where and how the maneki-neko came to be, but it became popular as a talisman in the late Edo-period (19th century). Some say it originates from Tokyo, others say Kyoto. Or Osaka…we might never know for sure, but there are some folk tales and legends related to the maneki-neko that are more thrilling than the dry facts of reality. Here is one:
Once upon a time, the owner of a small and impoverished shop took in a stray cat, although (s)he himself didn’t have enough to eat. In gratitude, the cat settled down in front of the shop and started beckoning, enticing customers to the shop. The shop soon began to flourish, the owner became a rich person and the cat was acclaimed as a lucky charm.
But what is the cat really doing? To us Western people it might seem that the cat is waving. However, in Asian culture the gesture of beckoning works differently to our understanding, with an upheld hand and palm facing down, and a downward movement. We do it the other way round, moving our hand and palm up. Thus the cat is beckoning luck, depending on what colour it was painted: golden maneki-nekos bring prosperity, red ones keep away diseases while green cats promise success for students in scientific and academic fields. The jolly joker is the white cat, though; if you can’t see the brown spots that are characteristic of the Japanese bobtail (the most popular cat breed in Japan, and a model for the maneki-neko) it only means that someone was too lazy to paint the spots on,…still, it should work as a charm (pardon the pun)…until the battery runs out.
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