American in Spain

Maneki Neko

August 12, 2011

Maneki Neko (thumbnail)In general, I am very much against knickknacks, a.k.a. crap you have to clean the dust off every once in a while. So perhaps you can imagine my dismay when my daughter and mother-in-law bring home one of those horribly gaudy asian waving cat things. Apparently it had caught my daughter's toddler eye (and why wouldn't it?) in the local chinos shop, and her grandmother had bought it for her. "Mimi mimi mimi", they said to each other mimicking the not-entirely-unlike-the-Nazi-salute gesture. I facepalmed and sighed. At least one or two of these Mimis – as they are now called in my house – has shattered into ceramic feline oblivion on our floor after being dropped by my daughter. I must admit that it's not all bad. She has learned a little bit about loss, and also about what batteries are for. And I learned a bit about how these cheap, cheap devices are constructed (the counter weight inside is scrap metal!). It's amazing how little energy need be given to a pendulum to keep it going forever.

Curious as to what the heck this thing was invading my domestic domain, I did a little research. The stories are actually pretty interesting, albeit laden with post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacious reasoning that our species is so prone to. First of all the cat is called Maneki Neko, and my favorite of the stories goes like this:

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.

Cool story, huh? Not entirely unlike our western oral stories than end in, "And that's why we believe X!"

The other interesting thing about the Maneki Neko is that the gesture is a cultural difference between the East and the West. In the East, an arm movement like that of the cat, with palm down, is actually a beckoning "come hither" gesture, whereas in the West, that's a "go thither" gesture. As a result, some Maneki Nekos manufactured for the West actually flip the paw around...which seems like a bad idea, as that makes it resemble another insulting western gesture, but the Chinese manufacturers probably don't know that.

In the end, the damn thing is somewhat growing on least to the point where I don't actively want to throw it into the dumpster. We have it sitting on our bookcase next to my golf trophies. The other day it caught my eye, reflecting off of my pewter golf trophy mug, and it dawned on me that it would make a great cinemagraph subject, especially with the reflection.

Maneki Neko

May this animated gif bring you prosperity...or at least relief in the knowledge that your house is free of perpetual golden cat gestures.