Have you ever wondered about the adorable cat statue with one paw raised peeking out from behind ferns and bamboo plants, atop shelves and registers, in the windows of businesses? I did and I've learned the best way to find out about something is to ask.
My family and I have a favorite Chinese/Japanese restaurant we go to for special occasions and while there my daughter pointed out a cute porcelain statue of a cat behind the register. She’s crazy about cats and if there is anything in the likeness of a cat in her vicinity she will undoubtedly find it and practically purr over it. Unfortunately I couldn’t tell her much about it other than I too had noticed it there and in many Chinese and Japanese restaurants. You’d think I would have asked the kind owners who always seem glad to see us. Nope. Too shy perhaps?
Days later at the mall we passed a version of the ceramic cat sitting in the window of a salon. A week or so passed and while eating at a pizza shop we noticed a similar statue peeking out from behind a plant atop the beverage cooler. Now we were genuinely curious about this creature that had repeatedly appeared in our lives over the span of a week or so.
Despite my initial reluctance to ask people in possession of the cat what it meant, perhaps fearing that I was prying into a private matter, I explained to my children the best way to find out is to simply ask. “Could you tell us about the cat statue?” I queried as the shop owner deftly caught a spinning wheel of dough in his hands. He replied, “That is a Lucky cat.” He fumbled with the pronunciation of the Japanese word so when we returned home I resorted to Google.
We learned that Maneki Neko has many English names including, beckoning cat, money cat, good fortune cat and welcoming cat and is traditionally displayed in a prominent spot in businesses and homes. There are many interpretations and ways to understand the significance of the cat, but to simplify, the general idea is that the raised paw signifies the beckoning of good fortune in either the form of wealth or luck. Depending on the particular statue the collar, coin and other adornments also carry symbolism.
Upon further reading we also learned that the lucky cat is the subject of several legends and can be traced back in Japanese history over 400 years. I looked for a version that could be easily understood by my children, but in the meantime the cat kept appearing when on outings to stores, restaurants and even during a trip to Epcot at Walt Disney World.
We saw white versions of Meneki Neko, gold, ones with both paws raised, one that bore a striking likeness to Hello Kitty, cartoon variations, tall and slender, squat and round, cats made of cloth, cats on key chains, when we really started to look, the lucky cat was ever where.
I discovered the book I am Tama: Lucky Cat a Japanese Legend written by Wendy Hendricks and illustrated by Yoshiko Jaeggi, in which we learned of the cat’s humble beginnings and the lasting friendship and good-fortune he brought when shown genuine kindness. My kids adored the story and the pictures were very lovely; the cherry blossoms seemed to float off the page.
Now whenever we see the beckoning cat we give a little wave and a smile, grateful to have gummed up the courage to ask about it and begin to understand its origins and purpose… and perhaps hoping for a little good luck of our own.