Last week’s post was about Rilakkuma (リラックマ), so this week I need to start with ま (ma). A big thank you to japanaustralia for continuously playing the game, and for this week suggesting manzai (漫才 / a type of stand-up comedy), Matsue (松江 / a former castle town in Chugoku), and Matsuyama (松山 / a city in Shikoku with a beautiful castle). Also, big thanks to regular contributor lovelycomplex22 for suggesting manju (饅頭 / a kind of Japanese steamed bun) and maneki-neko (招き猫 / beckoning cat). In the end, I decided to write about…
Maneki-neko (まねきねこ / 招き猫)
If you had asked me before I went to Japan whether maneki-neko (beckoning cats) were Chinese or Japanese, I would have said quite certainly that they were Chinese, but I would have been wrong. As beckoning cats are quite popular in Chinese culture, and are often seen in Chinese restaurants and take-aways, it is usually assumed that they are of Chinese origin, whereas actually they are Japanese.
Although I soon learnt that “maneki-neko” was translated as “beckoning cat”, it took me a long time to understand why this cat was thought to be beckoning. As you will notice if you see one that has a moving action (they often don’t, but sometimes they are battery or solar-powered), their movement is more of an up and down flapping motion, with the palm down, rather than the “come here” motion, with the palm up, which is usually made in the West. Actually, that’s how people beckon in Japan, and the gesture is called “temaneki” (手招き), so you can see where the beckoning cat gets his name from. I didn’t know about the difference in Japanese gestures until I started teaching and was instructed to follow the Japanese way so that children would understand what I was trying to say.
Maneki-neko can usually be found in shops and restaurants, and sometimes shopping or restaurant areas have large ones like the one above, and this red one, which I found near a bunch of ramen restaurants in Hamamatsu:
Maneki-neko are thought to bring good luck, and they come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes. You might notice that sometimes they have their right paw raised, sometimes their left, and sometimes both. It is most commonly believed that the left paw brings in customers and/or money, and the right paw protects the place where the cat is, but there are other theories out there.
For a little bit about the history and origin of maneki-neko, here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia (I don’t trust everything I read on Wiki, but I don’t have much time for research this week):
While it is believed that maneki-neko first appeared during the later part of the Edo period (1603–1867) in Japan the earliest documentary evidence comes from the 1870s, during Japan’s Meiji Era. It is mentioned in a newspaper article in 1876 and there is evidence kimono-clad Maneki-neko were distributed at a shrine in Osaka during this time. An ad from 1902 advertising maneki-neko indicates that by the turn of the century they were popular.
Beyond that, the exact origins of maneki-neko are uncertain, but there is a folk tale involving a wooden cat shaped this way:
A young woman had a cat, which she valued above all else. One day, she had her friend, a swordsman over. The cat suddenly went frantic, clawing at the woman’s kimono. Thinking the cat was attacking her, the swordsman severed the head of the cat, which flew through the air, then lodged its teeth into a highly poisonous snake on the support boards above. After the incident, the woman would neither eat nor sleep. The swordsman felt guilty for what he had done and sad for the woman. He went to a woodcarver, who was called “the best in the land”, who made him a carving of the cat, a paw raised in greeting. When he gave the carving to her, she was overjoyed and lived her life again instead of suffering.
A frequent attribution to several Japanese emperors, as well as to Oda Nobunaga and samurai Ii Naotaka, is that one day the luminary passed by a cat, which seemed to wave to him. Taking the cat’s motion as a sign, the unknown nobleman paused and went to it. Diverted from his journey, he realized that he had avoided a trap that had been laid for him just ahead. Since that time, cats have been considered wise and lucky spirits. Many Japanese shrines and homes include the figurine of a cat with one paw upraised as if waving—hence the origin of maneki-neko, often referred to as kami-neko in reference to the cat’s kami or spirit.
Others have noted the similarities between the maneki-neko’s gesture and that of a cat washing its face. There is a Japanese belief that a cat washing its face means a visitor will soon arrive. This belief may in turn be related to an even older Chinese proverb that states that if a cat washes its face, it will rain. Thus it is possible a belief arose that a figure of a cat washing its face would bring in customers.
In modern cultures, maneki-neko can be frequently found in rooms on the third floors of buildings, due to the auspicious qualities associated with the number three. Japanese folklore suggests that keeping a talisman of good fortune, such as the maneki-neko, in bedrooms and places of study will bring about favorable results and life successes.
Whatever the origin, maneki-neko are clearly a popular symbol of Japan, and as a tourist you will find them all over the place in gift shops, shrines, temples and restaurants. I expect one of the reasons that they’ve remained so popular is connected to their cuteness – Japan does love a kawaii character, and you don’t get much cuter than this!
Maneki-neko (まねきねこ) ends with こ (ko), so next week I will be looking for a noun beginning with “ko”. If you have any suggestions, please leave them below and I’ll give you a mention next week. And, don’t forget, no words ending in ん! (^_^)v