Maneki-Neko – the Japanese Lucky Cat

 Many Westerners refer to the maneki neko as a “lucky cat,” and though the real translation is “beckoning cat,” the familiar symbol is largely regarded as a talisman of good fortune, especially in financial endeavors.


The origins of maneko neko figurines date back to the Edo period (1603-1868), and though people debate whether the talismans originated in Edo (now Tokyo) or in Kyoto, they started appearing in popular culture during the 19th century and are now ubiquitous in Japan. (They’re also popular in China, which makes many people associate them with Chinese good-fortune symbols, but the maneki neko actually originated in Japan.)

Maneki neko come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials, as well as numerous colors. The calico cat is considered “lucky” in Japanese mythology, so white or calico-patterned maneki neko are among the most popular. However, they also come in black and gold, as well as several less common but more outlandish colors. 

The small black cat above is solar-powered, and beckons with its paw when sunlight hits it. (Artificial light will start it, too, which is why I took the photo at night–the only time it’s possible to photograph it without the movement causing a blurred-out paw.) I found it in a Tokyo shop while in Japan on a research trip last summer.

People sometimes think the cats are “waving,” rather than beckoning, because of the elevated paw (and the raising and lowering motion of the paws, in the motorized versions). However, the Japanese beckoning gesture involves raising the hand, palm outward, and rubbing the fingers against the palm–a gesture similar to the one maneko neko makes. (The Western gesture, which cups the hand palm up and pulls it toward the body, is historically considered quite rude in Japan.) 

When plotting my Hiro Hattori novels, I wanted to use an animal to demonstrate that my ninja detective, Hiro, had a softer side, despite his career as a highly successful assassin. Although people kept pets in medieval Japan, most animals were expected to work for their keep, at least in some way, so a canine companion didn’t make much sense–neither my ninja nor his sidekick (a Portuguese Jesuit priest) had any reason to bring a dog into the household. Cats, on the other hand, could be “useful” as mousers and insect-catchers, and have an independent streak that makes them great companions for busy detectives.

Enter the kitten.

The opening pages of Claws of the Cat introduce not only my detectives, Hiro and Father Mateo, but also a tiny kitten who ended up far more important to the series–and my characters–than I originally anticipated. She’s tortoiseshell, rather than calico–a nod to my own real-life maneki neko, Oobie:

16C13 Oobie

..but as the series continues, that little kitten has proven to be quite lucky, indeed.