Category: Japan

The Story Behind Japan’s Iconic ‘Beckoning Cat’

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.

Maneki Neko at Setagaya Tokyo
Visitors leave their own maneki neko statues at the shrine, often with personal messages asking for different blessings and written in black marker on the back of the statues. Credit: Pain In The Bud

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.

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Maneki Neko statues at Setagaya shrine. Credit: PITB

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.

Cats Are The Monks At This Japanese Temple

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:

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“This is how it’s supposed to be, humans: You kneeling before us. Those ancient Egyptians had it right.”
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“I can call upon powerful minions to smite you whenever I please.”

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“Tiny humans are permitted to touch my holy personage.”
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“And here is the nursery, where it’s currently reading time for our kittens…”
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“Walk with me on the path to deliciousness…”
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“Read the sign! We’re not open until I says so. Now if you please, I have napping to do.”

Screenshot_2020-08-12 ねこ地蔵とおる ( nekojizo) is on Instagram(7)
Screenshot_2020-08-12 ねこ地蔵とおる ( nekojizo) is on Instagram(13)
Screenshot_2020-08-12 ねこ地蔵とおる ( nekojizo) is on Instagram(12)
Screenshot_2020-08-12 ねこ地蔵とおる ( nekojizo) is on Instagram(4)

 

The Japanese Know How To Honor Hero Kitties: With Yums, Of Course

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.

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A cat and a group of people who rescued an elderly man from an irrigation ditch were honored by police in Toyoma, Japan, earlier this week.

Cats In Games: Yakuza Kiwami 2

I’d been playing Yakuza Kiwami 2 for only a few minutes when I stopped and did a double-take.

My in-game character was standing in the exact same spot I’d been standing in real life six months ago, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.

Here’s Karaoke Kan on that street corner in the game:

Shinjuku in Yakuza Kiwami 2
Shinjuku in Yakuza Kiwami 2.

And the same corner in real life:

Karaoke club in Shinjuku, Tokyo

The game’s recreation of Tokyo is impressive, featuring a replica of the Shinjuku district that feels alive, buzzing with activity and undiscovered adventures.

Here’s Shinjuku’s Don Quijote in the game alongside the real one in Tokyo:

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Don Quijote in Shinjuku.

Japan is arguably the most cat-friendly country in the world, with cat imagery everywhere, cats as pop culture icons, pet parents pushing their coddled kitties in designer strollers on the streets of Tokyo, and entire islands populated almost exclusively by cats.

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:

A cat in Yakuza Kiwami 2
A cat in Yakuza Kiwami 2.

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:

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Now would be a good time to run!

The Many Styles of Cat Fu

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Welcome, young grasshopper.

For the next 10 years, these temple walls will be your home. Before you return to the realm of man and cat wearing the orange robes of a true sifu, you will learn the many styles of cat fu!

Dissatisfied With Wet Food Technique:

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“You dare feed me tuna? Prepare to die!” Primarily deployed against humans, this style is effective in registering displeasure at meal time. It should be accompanied by a shrill, as-annoying-as-possible meow.

 

Invisible Skateboard Style:

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“Tony Hawk is an amateur who cannot defeat my style!”

Stance of the Five Bladed Bitch-Slap:

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“Step away from my treats!” A powerful stance to strike fear into the hearts of cats and humans alike. The extended claws signal you mean business.

Toxoplasma Gondii Technique

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A true cat fu Master need not use his fists, for he is able to control and manipulate the minds of simple creatures like humans.

Whirling Tuxedo Style:

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“You steal my Temptations? Prepare to die!”

Can Opener Fist of Doom:

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If this technique were not so difficult to master, humans would be rendered obsolete.

Flying Strike of Wake Me Up and Feed Me Breakfast:

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“You dishonor your family by sleeping until 5:59 a.m. Get out of bed and feed me breakfast, or feel the full extent of my wrath!”

Soiling Tiger Style:

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“You shall rue the day you chose not to clean the litter box.”

Stop Petting Me Before I Bite You Technique:

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“I enjoyed the petting and now demand that you stop, human.”

Stance of the Broken Wand Toy:

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“Better get to the pet store and buy me a new one, or else…”

Inebriated Catnip Boxing Style:

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“Oh man, this is good stuff. Who’s got the munchies?”

Crouching Tabby, Hidden Buddy Style:

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“This is stealth, not cowardice. My enemies cannot see me because I am inside a bag!”

Lazy Claw Technique:

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“We shall have our duel after I finish my nap!”

Photographs of kung fu cats taken by Hisakata Hiroyuki. Photos of lazy Buddy by me.