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Maneki Neko: Japan’s Beckoning Cats—From Talisman to Pop Icon

May 04, 2011

Mingei International Museum thru 1/15/12  

Had a run of bad luck lately? Then hightail it to the Mingei International Museum’s exhibition of over 100 Japanese Maneki Neko. Literally translating to “beckoning cat,” Maneki Neko are revered throughout Japan for drawing good fortune and warding off evil spirits.

Created during the 19th and 20th centuries, Maneki Neko are traditionally represented by a bobtail-type cat seated upright with one paw raised to the side of its head. Though they originated during Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868), the propitious function of Maneki Neko derives from centuries old talismanic practices.

The Mingei exhibition consists of selections from the extensive collection of Billie Moffitt, recently donated to the museum. Each Maneki Neko on display is unique, ranging in size from under one inch to over two feet. Fashioned in wood, metal, ceramic, or papier mâché, many are hand painted, embossed, or bear other distinctive ornamental details, often pertaining to a specific regional variation.

As one section of the exhibition explains, color symbolism sometimes plays a role in giving certain Maneki Neko specific properties; for example, gold is a reference to money, and white to happiness.

Another common feature of Maneki Neko is to decorate the cat with a red collar or neckerchief-like bib and bell, which may relate to certain Buddhist traditions. Not surprisingly, functional objects were created in the form of Maneko Neko as well, and the exhibition includes such items as teapots, water droppers, and, more fittingly, money banks.

Regardless of its specific form, Maneki Neko is still one of Japan’s most popular cultural icons, seen in homes as well as at the entrances of shops, restaurants, and other businesses where the beckoning cat calls out to potential customers.