The most famous cats in Japan, and perhaps in all of Asia, are the maneki neko, which can be translated as the “calling or beckoning cat.”
Maneki neko are fixtures beside the cash register in stores and restaurants throughout Japan. They are well known symbols of welcome.
One legend surrounding maneki neko suggests that they commemorate a cat who came home one night carrying a gold coin in his mouth, thus saving his owner from bankruptcy.
That is why maneki neko are often pictured holding a large oval gold piece, like the cats here. The characters on the gold piece signify an archaic monetary measure equal to 18 grams of gold. Some maneki neko wear a bib with the character for takara, or treasure, like the blue and white stoneware example on the left below. The white hashioki on the right displays the kanji fuku, or good luck, which is a kind of fortune on its own.
Another story claims that maneko neko have a magical ability to charm or bewitch anyone passing by. According to legend, just such a cat lured a wealthy lord into a temple that had fallen into disrepair. Once he passed through the gate the lord was suddenly inspired to repair and restore the temple. Temple administrators must put stock in this tale, because maneki neko charms are often sold at Japanese shrines and temple today. This smiling example, which has ball bearings inside that rattle when you shake it, seems like it might just be such a charm.
In any case, maneki neko are associated with good luck, and specifically with good financial fortune.
Some maneki neko beckon with their right paw, and some beckon with their left paw. There is some debate about the significance of which paw is raised. Some say that a raised right paw indicates general good luck, while a raised left paw specifically asks for customers or financial luck. But it probably boils down to the whimsy of the artist who made the pieces.
Maneko neko may be one of Japan’s most successful exports, because you see them not only in Japanese restaurants and stores, but also in Chinese, Korean, Thai, and other Asian places of business. Maybe that’s because everyone longs for a little more luck.