Tale of the MANEKI NEKO


( - the beckoning cat )

Did you ever wonder why some Japanese (and other Asian) restaurants feature a small ceramic cat ? - with its paw raised in a kind of salute ?
What does this mean ?

This is the story of the maneki-neko

If you travel west from Tokyo via the Odakyu rail line into Setagaya-ku, you can find a temple named Gotoku-ji. This Buddhist temple is located near the station of the same name, a short walk away. And walking behind the main hall of the temple you can find what looks like a memorial, a grave, with many offerings about it - and prayer notes offered for good fortune.
About the gravestone stand many cats - ceramic cats painted in white or other colours, adorning the site.
For this is the resting place of the
maneki-neko : the beckoning cat.

This story began a few hundred years ago, during the Edo period in Japan - the time when this country was ruled by the bakufu - a military dictatorship, headed by its great commander, or shogun - as some Westerners might better recall.

At this time, the temple was struggling to survive - donations were inadequate to maintain its buildings, and there seemed some danger it might collapse and have to close down. The head priest was vexed, and spoke of his worries to the several cats he looked after - they were his companions. How can we find some way to save our temple ? he wondered aloud to the cats. What ideas do you suggest ? The cats offered no ideas for him then, and simply continued to wash themselves again, a normal cat response to questions without easy answers.

 Some time later, during a dark and rainy night a group of samurai travelled by on horseback. The weather had caught them, and they were seeking some kind of shelter.
Then, passing a ramshackle temple, their leader stopped: his eye had caught the sight of a small cat outside the gate, seeming to signal them. Here we should explain that the gesture used in Japan to attract attention, or beckon for help for example, is different to that Westerners are accustomed to - a hand is held beside the head and the fingers moved in a small flickering wave. So no doubt the sight of a cat washing one ear might at first simply appear that way. Amused by this, the visitors dismounted and tethered their horses, then entered the temple and were welcomed in to its meagre shelter by the priest.

By this time a violent thunderstorm had erupted, and the samurai counted their good luck at suddenly finding such shelter in this way. The priest served them tea, apologised for the wretched state of his hospitality, and then to pass the time while the storm raged he read to them a sermon. His simple kindness impressed them.

The leader of this group was Lord Ii Naotake from Hikone, in central Japan.
He decided then to endorse this temple with funding to assure its survival, and so it continues today. The story became famous as a part of folklore, and after the later death of the responsible cat it was buried in a small grave by the temple's burial area, even with its own headstone. It became a widely believed symbol of good luck, with a craft trade in painted ceramic figures of the cat, many deposited by the gravestone by visitors seeking to earn some of the fortune associated with the cat's story.



 Maneki-neko grave, Gotoku-ji

And so many restaurants and other such public businesses have also adopted the figure of this "beckoning" cat, although relatively few of them would these days know about the historic and folkloric background to this figure.

( ... Copyright G.D. Bolton. Story recounted to author in Tokyo, 1970 - by writer Lewis Bush)

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