We are now almost close to September 29th , celebration date of the world day of Maneki Neko, the Japanese lucky cat. This specific date was chosen because it seems that in Japanese the numbers 9/29 can also be read ku-fu-ku, or “luck comes”: every year, in Ise, in the traditional street of Okage Yokocho just outside the shrine of Ise Jingu, the maneki neko festival is celebrated and for a week every handcraft shop in that area is converted into wonderful shops of such lucky cats.
With its typical raised paw, the maneki neko boasts many legends that have contributed to the growth of the Japanese love for felines, not least the one according to which a trader, collected a stray cat he took care of, was repaid in a sign of gratitude by attracting customers into his shop: actually the meaning of maneki neko is “cat that invites”. On the other hand, the use of placing statuettes is decidedly more recent, around the 19th century, when an elderly poor lady from Asakusa was forced to abandon her cat as she could no longer feed it. However, the cat appeared to her in a dream, telling her that if she created a statuette of the cat himself, it would have brought her luck.
A different legend tells that the first maneki neko was created by someone who wanted to bring a smile back to the face of a courtesan, after her beloved cat head was cut off by the owner to try to exorcise it, considering it a possessed animal, at the exact moment. in which a snake was about to bite the courtesan. The decapitated head landed on the snake, killing it and saving the girl, who fell victim to despair.
But the history of the maneki neko and of the wise spirits, the kami neko, has its folkloristic roots in the legends that see illustrious protagonists of Japanese history, such as emperors, Oda Nobunaga himself and other samurai, whose attention was attracted by felines waving a paw, then leading them to divert their path thus avoiding fatal accidents or ambushes set by their enemies.
Even if to a distracted glance they all look the same, the maneki neko have a fundamental characteristic that often escapes, that is which paw they have raised: in the Japanese folkloristic field it is believed since ever that those with the right paw raised bring in money, those with the left paws raised bring in clients. Some figurines show both maneki neko paws as raised, as a sign of double luck, but in this case they must be at a different height, otherwise the meaning would be as of surrender. But this is not the only difference: if everyone has ears strained and eyes wide open (cats are vigilant so as not to miss opportunities), they usually also differ in colour, thus attracting different fates. Starting from the most typical white one, considered a generic good luck charm, the most common maneki neko can be
– black: to drive away negative influences outside the house where it is placed
– red: to keep illnesses and accidents away, thus ensuring a long life
– golden or yellow: to attract money and wealth
– green: to bring success in study and academia
– purple: to make dreams come true
– pink: to help crown dreams of love
– light blue: to help personal and spiritual growth and avoid road accidents
Most of these figurines also wear a collar with a bell and a bib, typical cat accessories during the Edo period, and usually hold a koban under the other paw (an Edo era gold coin worth around 550€): on the koban you can often read the inscription 千万 両 (senman ryo), which indicates a sum of money equivalent to one million koban.
But despite the lucky character of these nice statuettes, one has to pay attention to their positioning also. According to the Japanese tradition, the maneki neko must in fact be placed in the entrance of the house or shop to have an effect, since it is believed that the closer it is to the door, the more the maneki neko will invite luck and customers who are on the street to enter. But never, never should they be placed in closed cupboards, on shelves that are too high or too low or in rooms where no one enters often, and it is also important to make sure never to put them with their face towards the walls.
From the notes of the tradition we can therefore begin to understand the Japanese affection for cats, which dates back to their importation from China between the VI and X centuries. It is said that the first cat adopted by an emperor was because of his regal appearance and bearing, and had a whole host of courtesans assigned to care for him in the imperial residence. More historical notes instead want the spread of the cat obviously for more utilitarian reasons, such as of course as a mice hunter with the task of keeping them away from the scrolls of parchment from the sacred scriptures and away from silkworms, a not indifferent economic source at the time. Cats then quickly spread among the population throughout the archipelago, honoured and sought after, not only for their usefulness, but as propitiators of luck and for the beauty and elegance of their appearance, noble creatures rich in beauty and spirituality.
Cats are everywhere in Japan, loved, respected, even feared as supernatural creatures such as the shapeshifters (bakaneko) or the hideous corpse-eating demons (kasha) and the man-eaters (nekomata) with the characteristic double tail (see also Japanese Monsters: horror and fear with a pinch of education). Through fear or reverence, cats have however acquired a particular respect: the legends about the demonic nekomata began to fade towards the end of the XII century, after some centuries of silence, and the explosion of the arts of the Edo era (1600) brought back the myth of the cat. With the appearance of new species of supernatural cats such as the aforementioned bakaneko, felines began to proliferate everywhere, along with new legends, such as the one that wanted some of the courtesans of the Edo capital’s pleasure districts not to be human, but rather transformed bakaneko: the idea that passing through the gates of the Yoshiwara meant being able to enjoy a flirtation with the supernatural gave people a delicious thrill. Eventually, those stories expanded far beyond just courtesans to include an entire hidden world of cats, including kabuki actors, artists and comedians. In the new popular imagery when these cats left their homes at night, they wore kimonos, whipped out sake and shamisen, and practically threw wild parties before returning home at dawn. On the other hand, other creatures such as kasha and their necromantic powers fueled the fear of demonic felines, while neko musume were believed to be hybrids between cats and humans, being born from the curse cast by cats towards the craftsmen who made the shamisen, as these were often covered with the fur of cats, in alternative to snake skin (see also Japanese Notes: short journey into the music of the Rising Sun).
In contrast with Japanese fantastic and terrifying stories, however, a particular feline culture developed, also thanks to some characteristic habits and behaviors of these animals. For example, Japanese sailors still use to carry tricolor cats on their boats because they believe that they are able to predict the approach of storms and by climbing the mast they are able to see and flee the wandering souls of the castaways who, transformed into bad spirits, would try to sink the ships.
In some places the cat population even surpasses the human one, such as on the island of Tashirojima, in Miyagi prefecture, known through the media as the “Island of cats”, and on which dogs are not allowed to protect beloved felines, and whose presence is also remembered through cat-shaped constructions, where among other things also host works by manga artists such as Ishinomori Shotaro, Chiba Tetsuya and Naomi Kimura Naomi, and even a small temple erected by fishermen following an accidental feline death, everything is dedicated to cats, protected and cared for by them as procurators of good luck.
Talking about temples, it is then worth mentioning the Gotoku-ji, the Buddhist temple of the maneki neko, a real “paradise” for lovers of these statuettes, where there are hundreds of thousands of maneki neko left as a sign by faithful people as thanking: there is a habit so that one buys a maneki neko directly in the temple and then return it once own wish has been fulfilled. Among other things, it is also the place where the tomb of the cat which, according to legend, it is said saved the life of the samurai Naotaka is still located today.
Tajiroshima is just one of a dozen islands dedicated to cats. Aoshima, for example, has now become an obligatory destination for cat lovers and for a specific photographic tourism. The few inhabitants stil residing on this island, the majority of whom are now retired, are divided between those who drive the felines away and those who feed them, in a typical Japanese balance between opposites, placid and distant from the rest of the world. The world, however, visits this small island twice a day, with a boat that transports tourists from the mainland.
The Japanese love for felines is so deep that, thanks to their typical resourcefulness and being able to take advantage of the indubitable advantage of relaxing by cuddling one even when a cat cannot be hosted at home, they have created nekocafe, places in which one can relax, everybody united by the interest in the welfare and health of the animal and the particular atmosphere of peace and serenity that one can breathe inside.
But if one wants to breathe an even more feline air, with due respect for the little creatures, it is possible to visit an entire, and real, cat village on the outskirts of Tokyo, where fairy-tale buildings in pure Studio Ghibli style have been specially designed (see also Happy New Year and Happy Birthday Miyazaki san): it is the Kichijoji Petit Mura, in which visitors are invited not to disturb the “inhabitants” while being able to politely interact with them. The Japanese are however used to respectfully use small felines (but not only!), so much so that they use to set up awareness campaigns for instance for the adoption of stray cats, leveraging trains whose races include on boarded free cats, similarly to the neko cafes, and up to “awarding” a cat the role of stationmaster, as at the Kishi station on the Kishigawa line.
Tama, this is the name of the famous and celebrated feline, was adopted by Koyama Toshiko, who at the time informally managed the train station, and was regularly fed by passengers: after the decision of the railway manager to cut the staff down, she was hired with the role of station master in 2007 with the task of welcoming passengers at the station, with the only payment in food. Such is the passion of the Japanese for cats that the decision increased the popularity of the station, then on the verge of closure, contributing to an increase in traffic on the line up to 10% in the first year of the cat’s service alone, so much so that in 2008 she was promoted to “super-stationmaster”, complete with a personal office obtained from a ticket office. Among other things, she thus became the first female employee to have a managerial position in the company and over the years Tama has been joined by other felines as “assistants”, including Nitama, finally chosen for the role of Tama successor. Her death occurred on 2015 in a veterinary hospital: a few days after her disappearance a Shinto funeral was celebrated and Tama was declared “Honorable Stationmaster for Eternity” and is today honoured in a nearby temple as a deity (kami neko).
Despite this being a quick review on cats and the love that the Japanese have for felines, it is also necessary to bear further testimony of this all through a much more serious work. Probably in the library of every cat and Japan lover there will certainly be a copy of I am a Cat, by Natsume Soseki, in which the writer entrusts the entire narrative to a cat adopted by a not particularly affectionate family, and whose pastime preferred is to listen to the speeches of his master, becoming eventually a cat expert in evrything, expressing his feline philosophy and enriching his speeches with true or presumed Zen maxims.
And I cannot close without mentioning a curiosity about feline breeds: the chrysanthemum is so dear to the Japanese, as the imperial emblem with its thousand petals that symbolizes life and prosperity as it manages to blossom in the coldest seasons of the year, that even the Japanese Bobtail it is the ancient local breed with the characteristic chrysanthemum tail, whose hair grows longer and thicker in all directions than in the rest of the body, creating a curious pom pom effect. It is a medium-sized cat, nimble and muscular, with almond-shaped eyes and the short coat with a soft and silky texture can have various colours but the most sought after are the two-tone and the so-called “mi-ke”, the calico. In Japan, the Bobtail was often portrayed in sacred drawings, in fact many representations are still found around Tokyo, as in the aforementioned Gotoku-ji temple. In Japan it is still considered a lucky charm he himself, often drawn on postcards and represented, not without a coincidence, by the statuette of maneki neko itself.