People who visit stores in San Francisco's Japantown and Chinatown often ask me about the "cute little paw-waving cats" made of porcelain that can be found there in many Asian restaurants, usually placed near the door or in a window, where custmers can see them before or just as they walk inside. Even in the relatively small North Bay city of Santa Rosa, there is a sushi retaurant that mounts an impressive display of such Beckoning Cat statuary, consisting of multiple cats, arrayed in family groups, layer upon layer, in curio cabinets lined with mirrors. Upon entering this eatery, one feels as if one has walked into a veritble Cosmos of Cats.
The Beckoning Cats shown here are typical of the species. They are made of hand-painted porcelain. The single cat statue is 6" tall. She wears a green collar and golden bell sprinkled with gold glitter and she holds a colden coin. The three-cat family is the same height. Both of these statues are hollow and have slots in their banks so that they can function as coin-banks. The 2 1/2 inch tall clay Spring-Kitty at right is designed to be stuck to the dashboard of your car. (We have one on the dashboard of the Mojo Car.) The five-cat family at the very bottom of the page is far larger -- an impressive 15" tall "Wall O' Cats" -- which is also a bank, and these cats are shown in their natural habitat, with offerings of coins and dollar-sign glitter-confetti scattered around their feet, for they are, in fact, the Lucky Mojo Curio Co.'s official customer-greeting cats and invite people to spend their bucks in our showroom and laboratory.
Most Americans are surprised to learn that the Beckonming Cat is not a fictional cartoon character, but the representation of a real, historical feline pet, known in Japan as Maneki Neko. It just so happens that i can cite a good source on the history and meaning of the so-called "fortune kitty" because at one time i edited a reprint of Japanese comic books in which the Beckoning Cat made an appaearance. From my introduction to the Eclipse Comics translation of "What's Michael" Volume One, here is the relevant information:
As explained by Patricia Dale-Green in "The Cult of the
Cat" (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1963), the Beckoning Cat is
associated with an ancient cat-shrine on the grounds of a temple
known as Gotoku-ji near Tokyo. She writes:
After this one of the Samurai -- Lord Li -- regularly visited the
old priest to receive religious instruction from him. Eventually
Li endowed the temple with a large estate and it became the
property of his family. Visitors who pass under the temple's
gateways, walk through its broad avenues of towering trees and
enjoy the beautifully laid-out gardens, discover, near the
cemetery of the Li family, the little shrine of the beckoning
cat -- which, it is said, still draws pilgrims from all parts of
This temple was originally a
very poor one, no more than a thatched hut run by
poverty-stricken and half-starved monks. The master-priest had a
cat of which he was fond, and shared with it such little food as
he had. One day the cat squatted by the roadside and, when half a
dozen Samurai appeared on splendid horses, it looked up at them
and raised one of its paws to its ear, as if it were beckoning to
them. The noble cavaliers pulled up and, as the cat continued to
beckon, they followed it into the temple. Torrential rain forced
them to stay for a while, so the priest gave them tea and
expounded Buddhist doctrine.
Because the Beckoning Cat had lured a wealthy patron to the
poor temple, images of this cat soon became talismanic emblems
and were particularly favored by shopkeepers. According to
At the entrances to their shops and restaurants, the
Japanese place clay, papier-mache, or wooden figures of the seated
cat with one paw raised to the side of its face. Such cats are
believed to promote prosperity, their beckoning paws inviting
passers-by to come in and do business."'
Today one can purchase Beckoning Cats made of porcelain, papier-mache, or
clay in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most are calicos, like the orignal temple-cat, but
occasionally black ones are found. Some are realistic, others are
conventionally "cute." Some are left-handed and some
right-handed. Some simply wave a paw, others both wave a paw and hold a gold
coin to their chests. Some are statuettes, others are
piggy-banks. There are even little spring-mounted cats made
to be glued to the dashboard of your car, where every bump
in the road will set them to waving their beckoning paw.
After this one of the Samurai -- Lord Li -- regularly visited the old priest to receive religious instruction from him. Eventually Li endowed the temple with a large estate and it became the property of his family. Visitors who pass under the temple's gateways, walk through its broad avenues of towering trees and enjoy the beautifully laid-out gardens, discover, near the cemetery of the Li family, the little shrine of the beckoning cat -- which, it is said, still draws pilgrims from all parts of Tokyo.
So popular is the Beckoning Cat in Asia, that in Thailand, the local prosperity goddess Nang Kwak, originally depicted as a young woman kneeling with a money-bag on her lap, is now generally shown making the Beckoning Cat's raised-hand gesture, and sometimes is even given a cat's tail. Add to this the fact that Nang Kwak is often represented in the form of a Thai penis amulet or palad khik (that is, her body conforms to the shaft of the penis and she wears a hat in the shape of the glans of the penis), and this goddess must win some sort of award for Most Intriguing Cross-Cultural and Cross-Species Religious-Luck Imagery. Like the Beckoning Cat, Nang Kwak is believed to be especially helpful to shop-owners and thus statuettes representing her can usually be found near the cash registers in Thai restaurants. In front of her statue, you may also see a small glass of water, which is filled every day before the reataurant opens for business, as an offering.
This little Thai penis amulet or palad khik can stand upon its base as a tiny altar-piece, or hang as a pendent from a loop on the back. Cast in bronze, it depicts the Thai goddess Nang Kwak and is a diminutive but highly detailed 1" tall. Nang Kwak wears the glans of a human penis as a hat and kneels with a bag of money in her lap, which she grips tightly in her left hand. Her right hand is raised in a gesture familiar to many people -- the customer-drawing gesture made by the Japanese good luck charm called the Beckoning Cat -- and her resemblance to the Beckoning Cat is enhanced by the cat tail that runs up her back and forms the piece's hanging loop. Nang Kwak is used, as one might expect, to attract wealth to a place of business.
Finally, i have been asked whether the Sanrio cartoon character Hello Kitty is derived from the Beckoning Cat. The answer is an unqualified "Yes." In Japan, the cuddly-cute and loveably pink Hello Kitty is referrd to only by her English name, and that name is a hyper-literal back-translation of the English translation of Maneki Neko, namely, "Beckoning Cat" -- she is, indeed, the veritable "Hello Kitty" who lures people to spend their money on a variety of trinkets and toys.
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