Gotoku-ji Cemetary watercolor by Mister Kha
The legends surrounding Maneki Neko are many and varied. The bones of the old narratives appear placeable in history, but much that wraps them have their roots in Japanese folklore and tradition. (as well as occasional, simple, voracity)
The legend I prefer takes place during a dark and stormy night at a monastery near Edo, Japan (now Tokyo) in the year 1615.
Gotoku-ji temple was very poor. The monk had barely enough food for himself and a cat he had taken in, Tama, but he made do, tending the monastery and following his path as best he could.
After splitting a particularly meager meal, the monk said to Tama, “Your companionship means much to me, but I can not assure you a good meal. You should not starve with me, but find yourself a home worthy of your company.” The cat, of course, did not reply, but went to sit in a window of the temple as cats are wont to do.
Outside in the rain, Ii Naotaka, second son of Ii Naomasa, hereditary owner of Hikone Castle, was returning from the Battle of Tennōji. With the storm worsening, Ii Naotaka and his men took refuge beneath a tree. Looking around he saw the cat in the monastery window. It’s paw raised, the cat seemed to be beckoning the Daimyo to take shelter in the small temple. As he approached the monastery, lightening stabbed down and split the tree that he had just been standing beside. He surely would have been killed had he remained by the tree.
The urn purported to contain the ashes of Tama (Gotoku-ji Temple)
Welcomed in, Ii Naotaka found the old priest to be wise and kind and devoted to his path and his companion Tama. To repay the cat and priest for saving his life he became Gotoku-ji temple’s patron. When Tama died, the cat was given a place of honor in the temple cemetery, where many important members of the Ii family are also buried, and the first Maneki Neko statue was created in his memory.
Today, Gotoku-ji temple is still open for worship and attracts visitors from all over the world.
But the story of Maneki Neko is far from over.
Ekoin, the Ryogoku District, and Moto Yanagi Bridge（両ごく回向院元柳橋） showing the Eko-in temple's tower. From the "100 Views of Edo" by Hiroshige. (ca 1867)
Almost exactly 200 years later, another cat added to the legend of the beckoning cat. This cat’s name is lost to history, but the story is well remembered.
In 1816 Edo a fishmonger, making his daily rounds would stop at a money-changer by the name of Tokita Kisaburo. The fishmonger always brought a few extra scraps for the money-changer’s cat.
This daily ritual continued until one day when the fish-monger fell ill and was unable to make his regular rounds. During his illness he awoke one morning to find two gold coins (kobans (小判), to be precise) next to his futon. While he did not know where the coins came from, it helped him through this short period where he was unable to work and he was very grateful.
When recovered he returned to his rounds and, as usual, his rounds took him to the money-changer’s. To his surprise, the cat did not appear for his scraps. Asking about the cat’s absence, the money-changer replied angrily that he had caught the cat stealing gold coins and had killed it.
Cat statues next to the The Hall for Prayers for the Souls of a Million Animals at Eko-in temple.
Filled with sorrow the fish-monger told the man of his finding two gold coins by his futon when he had awoke during his sickness. Hearing the money-changer’s tale the men concluded that the cat was trying to repay the fish-monger’s kindness.
Grieving over his mistake, the money-changer gave the fish-monger the two gold coins the cat had intended for him and sometime later a memorial was erected at Eko-in temple and inscribed with the legend: “A male animal which did virtuous and good acts.”
Maneki Neko from the Taisho period (1912-1926) made of iron. via
So, at this point we have a cat with a raised paw and holding gold coins. But there is still more to the form and the legend.
The bib is an age old item that every parent has tied around their child’s neck to catch the food that, despite their best efforts, does not make it into the child’s mouth. From a simple piece of square cloth, to stylized and highly embellished, the bib is universal.
The origin of Maneki Neko’s bib also appears to have been popularized in the Edo period (1603-1868), although the full legend likely has it’s roots in 7th century Chinese Buddhism. (no, i won’t go wandering off, as much as i’d like to. it would double the size of this post, so let’s just stay in japan for now)
Maneki Neko from the early Meiji period (1868-1912). Note the lack of coins and, in this case, the right paw is raised. via
By the time the legend of the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha made it to Japan he was known as Ojizō-sama or more commonly, Jizō, the guardian of children. Jizō statues are often adorned with a separate bib, just as the Maneki Neko often is, to thank the bothisattva for the cure of a sick child or to exhort Jizō’s protection of a deceased child in the underworld. (Mark Schumacher has an excellent and extremely comprehensive history of Jizō and other Japanese gods at his website)
Bibs were common collars for cats and small dogs of the wealthy during the Edo period and could be quite elaborate, adorned with bells and embroidered characters and symbols. The bib on a Maneki Neko was no exception, at times the pattern could even serve as the artist’s signature on a sculpture.
The significance of which paw is raised is a matter of some discussion; some say the left paw raised attracts wealth while the right protects it, or the left is for stores, the right for homes, or the left for drinking establishments the right for other establishments, left for fortune the right for health. Pretty much pick your interpretation.
The same applies to coloration, which is also quite variable depending on time and place.
The one thing that is clear amidst the stories, traditions, and legends of Maneki Neko is that cats have an enduring and significant place beside us in our history and in our homes.
As it should be.