The little cat doll called Maneki Neko (which means beckoning or welcoming cat in Japanese) is often found sitting in souvenir shops and folk craft shops. The cat is frequently found sitting near the entrance of shops in hopes of bringing prosperity.
There are different stories about the origin of Maneki Neko. One legend states when the feudal lord of Hikone walked by a temple, the temple’s cat beckoned to the lord in front of the temple gate. He stopped by at the temple to rest. Suddenly, a severe thunderstorm arrived but the lord did not get wet. The lord was so glad that he made a donation to re-build the temple.
When the cat died, Shobyodo temple was built and the cat became a god called Shobyo Kannon. Visitors to the temple started to offer Maneki Neko to show their gratitude when their wish came true.
Another legend about Maneki Neko talks of an old woman forced to abandon her dear cat due to extreme poverty. That night the cat appeared in her dream and said, “You will be happy if you make a doll in the image of me.” She made ceramic dolls in the image of her cat and sold them. Soon after, the dolls became popular and that made the old woman happy.
There is some debate over the meaning of the raised left or right paw. The most common belief is the left paw raised will bring customers to an establishment, while a raised right paw will bring wealth and good luck. It is believed that the higher the paw is raised, the greater the luck.
Today, a pair of female and male Maneki Neko sitting close together in Imado Shrine has become famous. There is a big Maneki Neko cat at the entrance to welcome visitors to the shrine.
For more information, go to www.jnto.go.jp