The cat who painted

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The tale of a legendary cat whose iconic figure and brush strokes are believed to spell luck and fortune.

Photos by The Origami staff


With a raised paw, this doe-eyed and charming feline has beckoned an enviable following akin to that of a religious icon.

Known to its faithful adherents to be a source of fortune and happiness, Maneki-neko has found a home in many Chinese and Japanese stores and restaurants, whether at a dim sum place in Toronto or at a storefront in Tokyo.

Non-imposing in its presence, his likeness is immortalized in porcelain and ceramic figurines and piggy banks, and bears an otherworldly, omniscient stature — much like the creatures of the Japanese imagination.

Maneki-neko lives on as an enduring symbol of prosperity. A lifted right paw is said to bring in happiness and good fortune to its home, while a left paw up in the air is meant to attract people with its charm.

Its legendary status dates back to the 17th century Edo period, a time characterized by opulence and prosperity and a tightly ruled feudal society. As most legends go, there are competing narratives about its origins.

As wild as it is to believe, and what many don’t know, is that Maneki-neko is one of several historic cats singled out and prized for their painting prowess. These cats with skills were thought to possess psychic powers, but by the late 1890s, its paintings began to be treated as a commodity.

Once known as Ottaki from the village of Otaru, his paintings dating back to the late 1890s were thought to resemble Japanese calligraphic characters.

Ottaki’s keeper, a shop owner, convinced people that the paintings held their fortunes. Word spread about Ottaki’s abilities and the untold wealth he brought to his companion, and soon enough pictures depicting her painting became synonymous with economic prosperity and good service.

Interpreted in this context, his raised paw is posed in the painting position and ready to reel in customers.

In a more popular incarnation of his life story, a samurai named Naotaka Ii finds himself stuck in a thunderstorm, and seeks refuge from the umbrella of a tree. Nearby, stood an aging temple, and a beckoning cat perched on its grounds.

Sheer curiosity trumps his instincts to stay dry, and he follows the cat’s lead. Within moments, lightning strikes and splits the tree in two. The man’s life is spared by the cat’s intuition.

Ii decides to honour the cat and his owner with his goodwill, and helps bring wealth to what became known as the Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo, the birthplace of Maneki-neko.

When it died, a statue in his likeness was made for the temple. The luck the temple continued to attract formed the belief that its figure would reap good fortune to anyone who owned one.

Beyond this story, the temple performs a sacred function in honouring cats that have passed on. Buddhists back then believed that cats could not experience Nirvana, because they were too consumed with catching mice to pay tribute to Buddha. The prayers offered at the temple are meant to liberate cats that are bound to the earth even after their death.

The temple still stands today, in Setagaya, a special ward in Tokyo.

Decoding Maneki Neko

Maneki Neko - Japan Maneki Neko - The Origami, Japanese

Thinking of adopting one of your own? This kitty has one name, but many faces and personalities to match. One breed is armed with a hammer, another clutching a carp and sometimes holding onto a marble or gem.

What does it all mean?

Maneki’s props

Gold coin or koban: The coin-carrying cat is usually spotted carrying a fortune worth ten million ryo. The koban dates back to the Edo Period.

Golden hammer: The hammer symobilizes wealth. Shake your Maneki-neko to attract money.

Carp: The fish is believed to represent abundance and determination, for the ability to swim against the current.

Daikon: Like the carp, but not as ubiquitous in its availability, the vegetable symbolizes bounty and good fortune.

Ema: A prayer tablet that takes the shape of a house or stable, used for scrawling messages or wishes, and left at shrines.

The colours of Maneki-neko

Black: Keep those evil spirits away

Green: For good health and good grades

Gold: For extraordinary wealth and prosperity

White: Symbolizes purity and positive energy

Red: Good fortune in love and personal success

Calico: A white coat with patches of brown and black spots on his fur, the calico Maneki-neko is believed to be the luckiest of them all.

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