In a new article, National Geographic delves into the history of maneki neko — Japan’s famous “beckoning cat” — and how the image became ubiquitous in modern society.
Chances are you’ve seen maneki neko even if you don’t realize it. The iconic feline image has transcended its homeland and is common not only in China, Vietnam, Thailand and the rest of Asia, it’s also made its way to the US and Canada as well, earning a place in shops run by Japanese and westerners alike.
There’s a reason for that: The waving cat not only represents luck and good fortune, it’s a welcoming gesture meant to attract customers. Maneki neko find a place in homes too, with different coat colors and patterns representing different positive attributes: A white cat is supposed to bring happiness, while a black cat wards off evil spirits and a calico is believed to bring luck in all its forms.
As a cat lover I kept an eye out for the iconic statues during my time in Japan and, although I missed Buddy, I couldn’t leave without seeing where it all began: The cat shrine at Setagaya, a quiet Tokyo suburb where, according to legend, a feudal lord followed a beckoning cat by the roadside and found refuge from the elements in a humble shrine, where the temple monk invited them inside and gave a memorable sermon.
The feudal lord was so grateful for the hospitality, and for finding shelter to wait out a violent thunderstorm, that he vowed to become the temple’s patron. The grounds contain several temples today, as well as separate shrine areas for maneki neko left by visitors and wooden icons with hopeful messages written on them.
All images in this post are from my trip to Setagaya’s cat shrine in the summer of 2019. To see more, check out the post I wrote at the time from Tokyo.
One of the highlights of my trip to Japan last summer was Gotokuji Temple, the famous “cat shrine” in Tokyo’s Setagaya suburb.
Gotokuji is home to thousands of statues of maneki-neko, or “beckoning cat,” an important and ubiquitous image in Japan: Statues of maneki-neko adorn shops and virtually every public place in Tokyo, but Gotokuji is where the legend of the beckoning cat was born. Visitors write prayers on the statues and ask for good luck for a variety of venture, from opening new businesses to getting married.
There is, however, only one current feline resident at Gotokuji, while Kyoto’s Nyan Nyan Ji — literally “meow meow shrine” — is populated exclusively by feline “monks,” who wear monkly garb and take their duties — especially napping, er, meditating — very seriously.
The most recognizable of them is Koyuki, the chief cat priestess at Nyan Nyan Ji.
Here are some photos, all courtesy of the temple’s Instagram, showing what life is like for Koyuki and her fellow priests:
When an elderly Japanese man fell into an irrigation channel and couldn’t get out under his own power, it was a cat who got the attention of a neighbor, leading to the man’s rescue.
The incident happened at 7:30 p.m. on June 16 in Toyoma, a city of about 413,000 people about 300 miles northwest of Tokyo on Japan’s main island, Honshu.
Koko the cat, a gray tabby, managed to catch the attention of a 77-year-old neighbor, leading her to the spot where the man had fallen into the irrigation channel, Kyodo News reported. The neighbor enlisted the help of her daughter — Koko’s owner — Tomoyo Nitta, and her two grandsons — ages 20 and 18 — who pulled the victim to safety.
Civic duty is a big thing in Japan, and Japanese police agencies in turn honor civilians who go out of their way to help or rescue others. (US police agencies, which are desperately trying to repair their tense relationship with regular Americans, could learn a thing or two from the Japanese model of community policing.)
The humans involved got an official calligraphic thank-you citation from the cops, while Koko got cat food. We’re sure she’s not complaining about her reward.
“I want to tell her well-done,” Nitta said, cradling the usually shy Koko in her arms during the brief recognition ceremony on June 28.
I knew it wouldn’t be long before the game brought a cat into the mix, and it didn’t disappoint. In one scene, a character asks you to find his dear little girl who has been kidnapped, and you’re under the impression you’re searching for his daughter — right up until you find the kidnappers, give ’em a good old Yakuza beatdown, and realize your acquaintance’s “little girl” is actually a cat:
The game, which is little-known in the US but hugely popular in Japan, also features a, shall we say, less amiable encounter with cats: