It looks like these cats called maneki-neko are rallying up against something with their paws up seemingly urging everyone to make a change. But, these cats of different sizes and colors are believed to bring luck and fortune – probably one of the reasons why they are a common sight in the entrance of a shop or a restaurant in Japan.
Contrary to popular belief, the maneki-neko originated in Japan and not in China. In fact, there are several versions of the origin of maneki-neko in Japan. But what’s certain is that these group of cats can be found in Gotokuji temple in Setagaya, Tokyo. Some versions claim that a 17th-century lord of Hikone was passing by when a cat suddenly appeared out of nowhere and called him to the temple grounds. The lord gladly accepted the invitation which in turn resulted to the pelting down of a sudden rainstorm that kept him from being drenched. In his gratitude, he donated a huge fortune to the temple and designated the place as his refuge and family temple. An area was set for cats to worship the god of mercy, Bodhisattva Kanon.
The other version of the story from Imado Shrine in Tokyo says there was an old woman who had to let her cat go because she was stricken with poverty. One night, while she was sleeping, the cat appeared in her dream and suggested that she should start making a ceramic figurine of her cat’s image. She did as she was told and these figurines became known as maneki-neko.
The maneki-neko calls with its palm facing downward. It is believed that when a cat’s right paw is raised, it brings money. When the left hand is raised, it means it’s inviting customers. However, when both hands are raised this is considered cheating or greed. The manikineko also comes in different colors besides white with their corresponding meaning. Black cats are said to ward off evil spirits while red cats serve as a protection against illnesses, gold cats apparently brings cash in and pink figurines have been recently established to bring luck in love.
What separates the cats at Gotokuji from the rest is the absence of a koban which is an oval gold coin from the Edo period (1603-1868). In other establishments or shops, the maneki-neko is clutching a gold coin in its paw. However, this is deemed inappropriate for the temple setting. In fact, there is a popular proverb “neko ni koban” which literally means “a gold coin to a cat” and figuratively suggests “pearls before swine.”