The Legend of Maneki Neko
The following is my own simplified interpretation and wording of the origins of Maneki Neko based on the Japanese legend of the Goutokuji Temple. There are several other legends about how the fortune cat came to be, but I believe this one to be the most prevalent or common one, and many of the variations seem to represent the same theme.
A long time ago, during the Edo period (17th Century) of Japan, there was a poverty stricken priest, who was the keeper of a run down Temple in the Western part of Tokyo. The kind priest shared what little food he had with his pet cat and companion Tama, whom he cared for despite his poverty. Life was very difficult for the priest. The cold winds whistled through the Temple and chilled his old bones, rain poured in through the dilapidated roof, and he ached with hunger and exhaustion, yet he always remained dedicated to his duties, and grateful for what little he had.
On one particularly dreary day, the cold was cutting through his damp clothing like a million tiny knives. He went to make himself some tea, in hopes to warm himself, when he was crushed to see that he had no tea to make. His good nature turned to utter despair and sadness, and he slumped down in a corner and began to weep.
Concerned, his beloved companion Tama went toward the man to see if he could possibly comfort him. The priest exclaimed in frustration "Oh Tama! I am so very poor, and yet still I keep you! Could you not one day, do something for this Temple? Do something for me?". His head fell into his hands and he wept quietly until he went to sleep.
Tama was puzzled, and decided to go to the outside of the temple for a while. He sat in front of the door and began cleaning himself, as cats do, licking his paws and rubbing them on his face.
Just then a very wealthy and powerful man was passing by the Temple as the gentle rain grew stronger and a violent thunder and lighting storm erupted. Large droplets of icy rain poured down and pelted him as he took refuge by a large tree. "This place will provide adequate shelter until the storm subsides" he thought. At that moment, he noticed a cat in the doorway of the old temple, cleaning his face with his paw, gesturing as though he were extending an invitation. This gesture puzzled him so, that he just had to have a closer look at this cat, who seemed to be beckoning him forth.
Cold and wet the man quickly approached the cat and entered the building. Moments later, the tree he had been using as shelter was struck by lightning and caught fire. The tree broke with a loud crash and flaming pieces of it’s shattered trunk fell precisely where the wealthy man had been standing.
The man was extremely grateful to the cat, for having saved his life. He was immediately compelled to find the owner of the cat and reward him. He entered the Temple, looking to find Tama‘s owner, and found he old priest, living in such deplorable conditions. He soon befriended the priest and showered him with gifts. The wealthy man used his influence to bring many wealthy people to the Temple, and it soon became very prosperous.
The cat had not only saved a life, but also relieved the priest of the burden of his poverty. When he died, the cat was honored by being buried in a special cemetery, and a statue was made in his likeness, reflecting the beckoning, raised paw that had brought so much good fortune and prosperity to his owner. As word of the events spread, people began placing figures of cats with raised paws in their homes, shops and temples, believing it would bring the same kind of prosperity into their own lives, that Tama had brought to the Priest.
Maneki Neko Today
Also known as the beckoning or Japanese fortune cat, Maneki neko has become a very popular symbol of good luck and an invitation to prosperity and success in business. It is typically represented as a cat adorned with a bib, collar and bell, with one paw raised and often holding a coin or fish in the other paw. Maneki Neko can often be found sitting in the windows and entrances of Asian shops and restaurants, but has been adapted to many modern variations, bringing a bit of good luck charm to keychains, chopsticks, air freshners and many other collectibles. It's likeness exists in traditional form as well as in many modern adaptations, ranging from cats with both paws raised, fat sumo cats in all colors of the rainbow, and has even been modified into other animals like dogs, pigs and rabbits!
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