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.