Maneki Neko Tattoos: the meanings behind a gesture

This cat waving its right or left paw hides all sorts of meanings behind a gesture that’s more than just a symbol of good luck…

The Maneki Neko (literally the “the beckoning cat” or “fortune cat”) has a history of its own that goes back centuries. Apart from the countless “symbolic” meanings of the cat in the traditional upright pose, the image has also been chosen as the subject of so many tattoos the world over that its fame has spread like wildfire.

A talisman for heavy drinkers?
If you’re a westerner, the first mistake you’re going to make is to think that the nice little kitty is waving at you. Wrong. The Maneki Neko is only beckoning to get our attention. The left paw symbolises luck in business. The right paw brings good health and lucky experiences in general. This explains why many Japanese bars have a Maneki Neko at the entrance gesturing with its left paw. In the Tokyo area, in fact, heavy drinkers who can hold their drink are nicknamed “hidari-kiki” (“southpaws” or “left-handed”) exactly like the cat welcoming them in at the entrance to the bar!

The meaning of the bib
The decoration of the collar (or scarf) can also be found with a bell attached, a flower (a hichirimen) or a bib. Some scholars of Japanese tradition trace the “collar-bib” back to the decoration on statues of the divinity Bodhisattva Jizo, the protector of sick children who was positioned at the entrance of hospitals, sanctuaries and cemeteries. The bib stood for the mercy displayed by Jizo towards unfortunate little children. This was recognised by grateful parents who tied a scarf around the neck of the statue to thank him for healing their child.

First appearances
But when did the Maneki Neko make its first appearance? According to historians, it probably dates back to the end of the Edo period, to about the mid-19th century. In a newspaper article of 1876, the famous kitty is shown wearing a kimono and, in the piece, it is mentioned that the reader could go to admire “rare specimens in a temple in Osaka”. The advent of the spread of the more commercial version of the figurine dates back to the early 20th century, seeing as how it appears in an advertisement in 1902.

Sexual warning
Then during the Meiji period, when Japan was coming out of its splendid isolation and suddenly came into contact with the western world, all the sexual talismans that had been so fashionable during the Edo period were banned. This ban became so absolute and the judicial penalties so severe in such a short space of time that the Maneki Neko started to appear on the doors of Tokyo brothels as if it were a prostitute inviting a customer to come in.

Yang, East Tattoo, Kaohsiung City, Taiwan
Yang, East Tattoo, Kaohsiung City, Taiwan

The Usugumo legend
Another tale tells of the geisha Usugumo and her beloved cat who, one night, would not leave her in peace inside the brothel of Yoshiwara, to the east of Tokyo. Driven to distraction by the way that the animal kept scratching her kimono, she asked the owner of the brothel to cut off its head. This he did, and the head was struck off so violently that it flew towards the ceiling where it bit a snake that had been lying in wait for hours, ready to strike Usugumo in her sleep with its deadly poison. Moved by the generosity of the cat, a client made a statue of it and gave it to the geisha who was now mourning her pet. This was the start of the spread of wooden Maneki Neko figurines.

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