As I returned to England for the summer, after an absence of about two years, look who is greeting me at the doorway of my house, beckoning me in….
This little fellow is a Maneki Neko (招き猫) or Beckoning Cat. He has many names though, I prefer the name Fortune Cat, and how he came to live in a house in England is not your usual story of jumping into a suitcase on the way home from Japan.
Maneki Nekos are often found in shops or restaurants and they beckon the customer in with their upright paw. This gesture may look a little like a wave but in Japan the signal to call someone over is to hold out your hand, palm down and repeatedly folding the fingers down and back up. Almost the opposite of the English way of doing it. They wear a little bell and a bib around their neck. I’m not sure of the significance but apparently it was common for cat to wear this attire back in the Edo period, perhaps the bell performed the same function as it does these days, to warn birds of incoming cat death.
These cats also commonly hold a coin, these coins are know as koban (小判) which were used in Edo period Japan. The value written on the coin is 10,000,0000 ryo (千万両), which as you can guess is a lot of money. An impossible amount in fact. Maybe it is not even supposed to be a quantifiable amount, the first two characters on the coin can be read senban (千万) means ‘very much’ or ‘a great many’. The value on the coins may simply be trying to infer Loadsamoney. This coin ties in with the idea that having a Maneki Neko in your shop will bring with it a large fortune and wealth.
Also related to money, these cats are often used by children as piggy banks. The piggy link does not end there though, the Japanese version of the idiom “pearls before swine” is “coins to cats” (猫に小判 neko ni koban).
The Maneki Neko living in my house is not Japanese at all but instead originated from Colombia.
When I visited Colombia as a youngster we would always get our photos developed at Foto Japon, the elite problem solvers amongst you will no doubt have worked out this means Photo Japan in Spanish. At that time their little mascot was a Maneki Neko holding their logo rather than a coin. I fell in love with it instantly and begged my mum to buy one. It turned out that they did indeed sell them but our usual shop was sold out.
All around Bogotá we went looking for one of these cats, my poor mother being dragged to any shop we happened to pass. Unfortunately the cat was nowhere to be found and I was left disappointed.
That was until we went food shopping a week later and in the mini Foto Japon in the supermarket was a lucky cat just staring at me. It was a proper one too, not one with the company logo on it. I was so happy.
Looking back, I don’t think that my need for a neko was driven by some sort of burgeoning love for Japan but I had recently played through Legend of Mystical Ninja on my N64, a game where you had to collect these lucky cat dolls. Maybe I just wanted to be like Goemon, the hero of the game.
In the years since then I have not amassed any fortune or wealth but my photos always come out really well. Maybe the origin of my Maneki Neko explains this.