The Powerful Authority of Cute Animals

On the mechanism of the beckoning cat and other talismans, an Object Lesson

More than likely than not, you’ve already been propositioned by the beckoning cat. Its barren, glimmering eyes are commonplace in the storefront windows of most American Chinatowns and many sushi restaurants—vacantly wooing passers-by on the street. You might also know this object as the maneki neko—a Japanese term that roughly translates into English as “beckoning cat.” This animal-shaped object comes in various sizes, and might be constructed from a host of materials: plaster, plastic, porcelain, vinyl. Its raised and beckoning paw, not waving “hello” but coaxing you to come a bit closer, may or may not be moving—robotically, hypnotically—back and forth. Typically, the beckoning cat will be white (sometimes calico) and chubby. It’s usually domesticated with a red collar, and clutching a shiny golden coin.

The ubiquity of the beckoning cat is due, in no small part, to the fact that it’s alleged to have qualities that verge into the murky and obscure territory of the magical. The beckoning cat is rumored to bring good fortune to human life and falls into the class of objects we might deem “talismanic.” It is a utilitarian, animal-shaped, harbinger of positive futures.

When domestic cats were initially introduced to the Japanese, probably around the seventh century (via China), they were primarily a curiosity for aristocrats. But they have played practical roles in Japanese economics. Numerous accounts claim that, in the early 17th century, the Japanese economy faced a significant threat when rats were poised to destroy a bulk of their silk-producing worms: A decree was supposedly set forth at this time to outlaw the buying and selling of cats. Cats were free to roam the streets, killing rats and securing the production of silk, arguably playing a kind of salvational role in human economy.

Histories of the beckoning cat speculate that its origin as a talisman may date to the Edo period (as early as the 17th century), in Japan. There are many legends, but most tell of a beckoning cat that reversed the fortunes of humans. The beckoning cat might, for instance, commemorate a cat that helped a human evade an attack. Or perhaps the beckoning cat honors a feline who lured a new crop of worshippers into a dying temple. Whatever the case, the popularity of this object seems to hinge on its rumored ability to manipulate and shift the chaotic and unpredictable tides of human fortune. The cat’s stare may be vacant, but its powers may verge into the supernatural. There are at least two temples in Japan that claim to have genealogical links to the beckoning cat: the Gotokuji Temple in Setagaya, and the Imado Shrine in northern Tokyo. Each of these spaces is flooded with the talismanic bodies of beckoning cats.

The beckoning cat does bear a striking resemblance to another famous Japanese cat who may be even more familiar to Americans: Hello Kitty. Like the beckoning cat, this cartoon creature often holds her paw up in the air, making a social gesture. Unlike the beckoning cat, however, she greets us with a straightforward western-style “hello.” Like the beckoning cat, she is white, and tailless as a bobcat. Unlike the beckoning cat she wears no collar and, instead, is gendered female (a small bow perched by her ear.) Hello Kitty also stares outward with blank and vacant eyes, but her vacancy is more extensive. She’s mouthless, too.

Ted Eytan/Flickr

The likeness between these two animal-shaped objects is uncanny. But Hello Kitty’s parent company Sanrio does not appear to embrace it: Hello Kitty is, after all, trademarked. Cynicism aside, it is useful to explore distinctions between these fabricated cat bodies. Hello Kitty does not come charged with the same kind of talismanic potency, for instance.  Instead, her allure is a simpler variant of cute. Where the beckoning cat is believed to tame the waves of fortune in a broader sense, Hello Kitty’s power tames the waves of global capital’s toy market. The beckoning cat keeps watch in storefront windows because it is believed to have magical properties we humans lack, and need. Hello Kitty is simply a toy that might fill an amusement-shaped hole in human life, but the beckoning cat seems to offer something more basic and primal: luck.

saname777/Flickr

In spite of its talismanic qualities, the beckoning cat is not a particularly valuable object. You might say that the beckoning cat is, like many talismans, also a species of tchotchke. The term tchotchke in Yiddish refers broadly to a set of worthless and highly disposable objects: a tchotchke is something like a knick-knack, a trinket, or a bauble: an object that’s never valuable enough to become a treasure. The beckoning cat is, at best, a kind of cheap fascinator—an animal-shaped object that, in spite of its virtual worthlessness, is mysteriously treasured. The occasional rare vintage or antique cat can fetch a decent price.

But most beckoning cats are produced with poor quality materials, sold in bulk, and cost less than a restaurant meal for two. We may expect great things of the beckoning cat, but this doesn’t earn it any particular pride of place in human cultures. If we have reverence for it on one level, this doesn’t seem to give way to reliably reverential treatment. Tchotchkes like these are nice to have around. They add a little flash to a window or a desk. But they’re easy to throw away, and easy to replace.

What’s strangest of all, at least in my mind, about this animal-shaped talisman is how much its role in human life actually overlaps with that of living, breathing animals. That is to say, both plaster and organic animals are apt to become talismans that confer a kind of expedient magic that humans can use for their individual or collective benefit.

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Beatrice Marovich is a writer based in Madison, New Jersey, and a doctoral candidate in philosophy and theology at Drew University.

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