Friday, June 12, 2009

When Life Goes to the Dogs Get a Cat

The Original Hello Kitty

Walk down any street or alleyway in Japan and you are sure to notice them. They beckon to you from just about every shop window and doorway you pass. Cats, cats, cats, they’re everywhere! Not just any cats, but a particular breed of cat that has earned undying devotion from the inhabitants of this island nation. To describe them as popular is an understatement. They are in a word ubiquitous. They are in fact little ceramic figurines depicting a cat with its paw raised in a come hither pose that have been affectionately dubbed maneki neko, “the beckoning cat.”

No one knows for sure just when maneki nekos first started to grace store fronts and homes in Japan with their presence but newspaper accounts first mention them around the year 1876. That year coincides with a period of history in which Japan attempted to transform itself from a feudal society, where Samurai and ancient lords ruled, to a more Western and industrialized nation. The Japanese government of the period passed sweeping reforms designed to sweep away old ways of thinking and make way for Western modernization. The new forward looking government of the time bought into a whole package of modern science and technology that came bundled with a host of Western concepts and beliefs. Included in that package was an accompanying set of Christian moral values that looked askance at more than a few traditional Japanese practices. One of those practices included the displaying of phallic-shaped icons. Seen by Westerners as offensive, the figurines had long been regarded by locals as symbols of fertility used to beckon rich harvests and good fortune. While the offending figurines were swept away by government fiat, the shelves that displayed them didn’t stay empty for long. Porcelain cat figurines with their paws raised in a “power to the felines” gesture soon filled the empty niches.

Restaurants and other establishments quickly adopted the maneki nekos in the hopes of bringing in a rich harvest of customers. By the turn of the century they had become a permanent fixture in most shop windows as well as many homes. It is a position that they have maintained to this day.

Why a cat? Why not a duck or a dog even? Well in one Tokyo neighborhood where there are more maneki nekos per square kilometer than perhaps anywhere else on earth they will tell you a story that has filled the imagination of anyone who has stopped to listen to locals tell the tale for the last 300 years. The story goes that one day the rich and powerful Lord Ii while out hunting took refuge from a storm beneath a huge tree. While standing there he spied a cat in the doorway of a local temple that seemed to be beckoning him to enter. He moved from his position beneath the tree and upon entering the temple heard a terrible cracking sound. When he turned to see what the noise was he was startled to discover that the tree under which he was standing just moments ago had been struck by lightning and fell to the ground. Had he been standing there he would have been killed and so Lord Ii felt he owed his life to the cat who had beckoned him to the safety of the temple and from that day on the temple known as Gotokuji would become the official place of worship for the powerful Ii clan. Gotokuji temple still stands today where visitors will find it much as it was some three centuries ago. Well that is except for one very noticeable difference, virtually hundreds of maneki nekos fill almost every nook and cranny of this amazing place steeped in history. It’s here you will find the true devotees of the lucky cat who have come to pray in hopes that it will shed some of its good fortune on them.

For many Westerners the maneki neko still sends somewhat of a mixed message today. While its gesture beckons people in Japan it does exactly the opposite in many places around the world. In fact maneki nekos that are produced for export, and there is an apparent growing need for them everywhere, have their paws reversed to portray a more Anglo-American welcoming gesture.

While maneki nekos are traditionally white with their right paws raised to welcome good fortune, today you can find them in all sorts of colors and poses including gold for immense fortune, pink for inviting romance and even sumo size cats for inviting extra calories I guess. Whatever happens to be your heart’s desire, I’m sure there is a maneki neko out there who is beckoning you.

*I went all the way out to Gotokuji temple (which is qutie a trek from my home)and got some really nice maneki neko photos that I was going to post here but I can't find them.

1 comment:

  1. That is too bad about the lost photos. Please continue looking - we'd love to see them! Keep up the good work, maneki neko man!