Near the front of shops and restaurants all over Japan, you will see a statue of a white cat (or sometimes a black one) sitting on its haunches with one of its front paws raised as if it were waving at you. This is exactly what it is doing – it’s trying to get your attention so you’ll come inside the establishment to spend some money.
This is maneki-neko, the beckoning cat.
Sometimes these effigies are ceramic figurines, and sometimes they are plastic statues that may have a motorized arm that literally beckons.
There are various stories about how this ubiquitous mascot came to be, one of which involves a daimyo feudal lord who stopped under a tree in a storm near Gotokuji temple in Tokyo. While standing there, he noticed a cat seeming to beckon from the nearby gate of the temple. As soon as the curious lord went over to have a closer look at the strange cat, lightning struck the tree – a sure sign that when a cat beckons, you had better heed it.
I visited this temple some years ago, and saw maneki-neko cat statues in the same profusion that you might see Jizo statues at many other temples.
Over time, the maneki-neko pose became so instantly recognizable that even a lot of non-cat mascots do it. In Edward Harrison’s book Idol Idle, about Japanese shop mascot statues, there are photos of a maneki-buta beckoning pig and a maneki-shisa Okinawan lion dog. And in the previous entry on this blog you’ll see a picture he provided of himself posing together with a maneki-neko style photo shop mascot. And needless to say, Hello Kitty has struck the pose as well.
But my favorite maneki-neki is one I first laid eyes on back in 1997, when I took up residence in Kawaguchi, just over the river from Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture. This was no mere pussycat, but a ferocious lion. He stands on the roof of a multistory building full of izakaya bars just outside the East Exit of Kawaguchi Station, as if roaring at the crowds of commuters getting off the trains and telling them they need to come inside for a drink.
Like any good maneki-neko, the Kawaguchi lion has one paw raised. Moreover, the leg that the paw is attached to seems to be a separate piece from the rest of the otherwise solid statue. In the photos below, just as in the photo at the top of this entry, you will notice a deep, dark seam around the cat’s shoulder joint. With a pint-sized maneki-neko, this means there is a little battery-powered motor inside to make the limb wave up and down.
Could it be that the lion also waves his mighty paw from the izakaya rooftop?
It sure looks as if someone intended for that to happen. Sadly, though, in the countless times I have looked at this statue from 1997 to the present, I have never once seen it move. Despite my fervent wishes.
Incidentally, if you continue along the main road past the lion and away from the station, you will eventually find yourself gazing up at an almost equally colossal statue of Marilyn Monroe.