The story of maneki-neko, an ancestral good luck charm from Japanese culture |

By Léa Dérédjian

You may have met him at Japanese or Chinese restaurants and shops, wondering what this cat with its raised front paw represents. A key element of Asian culture, the maneki-neko is a powerful good luck charm for all. Guardian of luck, fortune and even love, it mixes tradition and modernity while ensuring a mission: to look after its masters since the 1600s.

A maneki-neko – or “inviting cat” – is usually installed near an entrance. With its raised paw, it invites us to enter. Very popular in Asian culture, maneki-neko has its origin in several legends. There are varied stories, all of which describe the cats as heroes who saved humans. While it is still difficult to say what inspired this lucky charm, the most famous origin comes from Japanese Lord Naotaka and his cat.

In the province of Hikone, during the Edo era, there was a dilapidated temple held by a very poor priest. His only companion was a cat named Tama, with whom he shared his meagre resources.

One day, a violent storm struck the area which surprised Lord Naotaka II, lord of the province, who had just returned from a hunting trip. Looking for shelter, he took refuge under a tree just in front of the temple. Tama was standing nearby on the square, and with its raised paw, it seemed to invite the lord in. Intrigued, the man moved forward – and lightning struck the tree where he was standing a few seconds earlier.

Saved by the cat, Naotaka became the benefactor of the temple in order to thank the cat for its act. When Tama died, the monk buried it with honours and created the maneki-neko so that everyone would remember the cat’s story.

“The cat which invites”

Following the legend, the main characteristic of the maneki-neko is its raised front paw inviting visitors to enter, thus it is often found near entrances. And depending on the paw it lifts, the cat brings something different to its owners. If it raises its left paw, it will attract fortune, while if its right paw is raised, happiness will be invited into the house. And if it raises both paws, then both benefits will apply. When placed in stores, they have another symbolism: the raised left paw invites customers to enter while the raised right paw (often holding a gold coin) invites them to spend!

“The different colours of the Maneki-Neko do not have the same effect”

The maneki-neko also comes in different colours which correspond to what you want to achieve. The most classic is the all-white cat, a symbol of purity and a guarantee of protection in the home where it is found. The most sought-after is the tricolour, a white cat with both red and black spots; this combination comes from the coat of some Japanese Bobtail cats, and is considered to be the most powerful of all good luck charms.

If you take it home with you, it is said to bring you wealth, health, protection, wisdom, and success. If you want to find love or ensure happiness in your relationship, then choose a pink maneki-neko. For all those looking for fortune, it is enough to have a yellow or golden cat. To ward off evil spirits, nothing beats a black cat. Finally, if you want to succeed in school, put a green maneki-neko in your room.

A maneki-neko often sports a red necklace or scarf around its neck as a symbol of good luck, as well as protection against bad luck. The figurine also often wears a bell and holds a Koban (a coin with a high monetary value during the Edo era) which are supposed to bring wealth to its owners. In this respect, it is a good luck charm popular in many households in Japan and China.

Maneki-neko in pop culture

The maneki-neko has been featured in several cartoon series and video games where, as in life, it symbolises luck, fortune, or simply to give a Japanese touch. You’ve already seen the cat in Pokémon. He is here to declare war on you, yet Miaouss is inspired by the famous good luck charm. He is always looking for money for his masters, according to the Pokédex, and one of his attacks is to throw coins – he has a Koban on his head and when you meet him in the game, he is represented with one or two raised legs.

The maneki-neko is also present in Okami, a 2006 action-adventure video game by Capcom, in the form of a statuette. In the game, you have to hit it to get some coins, in reference to the good fortune it can bring. He is also represented in the RPG game Skies of Arcadia as a mount and weapon for Daikokuya, one of the bosses.

In terms of cartoons, it’s also appeared in Samurai Pizza Cats, a 1990s cartoon series which follows three cybernetic cats who run a pizza parlour in Little Tokyo and moonlight as heroes. The maneki-neko was the hiding place for the Super Catatonic, the cats’ combat robot. In another appearance, the maneki-neko is seen as a villain in the 2009 French cartoon Kobushi. In this one, the cat, which is the lucky charm of a Japanese restaurant, comes to life at nightfall and desperately seeks to eat the heroes, the samurai sushi apprentices.

Finally, the famous cat figurine also inspired Japan’s most famous cat: Hello Kitty.

Both a symbol of welcome and protection, the maneki-neko is a timeless guardian. Whether in homes, shops, or games, it remains above all synonymous with welcoming kindness. Have you ever put a maneki-neko in your home?