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.


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.

It shouldn’t be particularly controversial for me to point out that humans are constantly objectifying animals. Millions of animals are, quite literally, turned into objects every day for us to eat. The bodies of living, moving animals become steaks, cutlets, chops, breasts without bones. In the age of industrial agriculture, the lament against our use and objectification of other animals has become commonplace. Academic ethicists, documentary filmmakers, growing numbers of vegans—all wonder at the ability of animal life to endure as we humans continue to use them as means to our own rather ravenous ends. The claim that many animals are objectified should be, then, a rather obvious point. I suspect the stranger claim is that living, moving animals are also treated as talismanic objects.

This is, however, the Internet age and sites like BuzzFeed Animals remind us, daily, of the powerful authority of cute animals, who do cute things that make us stop everything and just look. Researchers are already trying to unlock the enigmatic secrets of this “Power of Kawaii” (Japanese for “cute”). It appears to hold valuable treasures—such as the ability to turn humans (who look at pictures of cute animals) into more productive workers. There are interesting questions to pursue here: what is this “power”, in the first place? Where does it come from? Why does it work? But I won’t pursue them now. Instead, I want to suggest that there’s something in this alleged power that seems to leave animals vulnerable to becoming talismanic.

Today, in places like urban Tokyo, the domestic cat seems to have become a rare commodity for many apartment dwellers (who are not allowed to keep cats). Hence, a phenomenon called the cat café is apparently on the rise. Pet food behemoth Purina has recently opened one in Manhattan. In cat cafés, apartment dwellers pay by the hour to keep company with cats. Petting cats seems to impart some peace, companionship, and serenity into the hostile, metallic and plastic anonymity of their urban lives.

A cat café in Kyoto (Wikimedia Commons)

The bodies of these living cats seem to take on something of the talismanic—they become creatures with the power to change, to bring something that might otherwise go missing (perhaps merely the warmth of a soft body) from human life. They work a certain kind of magic. It would be cynical to pretend there’s nothing heartening in a story like this. But it would also be naïve to forget that when many humans have a need, their collective desires often become exploitative. At what point are the cats of the cat cafés asked to exist solely for their special, rejuvenating powers?

Amy Finkel’s documentary film Furever explores the complex grief that humans go through, when their companion animals pass away. The chosen coping mechanism, in her film, is to literally turn these creatures into objects—some choose taxidermy, others choose processes like mummification. To make relics of the dead is an ancient, enduring, and reverntial practice, and Finkel’s film explores the nuances and complexity of this grief with sensitivity. But there is something unsettling in the image she shows us of a young couple, out walking their dog, rolling its dead and taxidermied companion alongside it in a stroller.

Animals, of course, resist any simple conscription into talismanic status. They are living, breathing, crapping, barking, roaring, and feeling entities after all. Swedish sociologist David Redmalm has studied the role of chihuahuas in human culture and suggests that they’ve become what he calls “holy bonsai wolves”—descendants of the wild wolf who (like the bonsai tree) actively confound distinctions between nature and culture. They are anomalous creatures that resist categorization as either subject or object. Like Paris Hilton’s chihuahua Tinkerbell, they are frequently used as adornments and accessories. The Chihuahua can complete the look for an urban woman who lives in luxury and can afford to indulge in frivolity. And yet, like Tinkerbell, they are just as likely to urinate on their owner’s expensive clothes. Chihuahuas can, literally, piss on their owner’s frivolity.

The reality of a living chihuahua, in other words, will inevitably confound any attempt to turn this creature into a domestic object who might (as if by magic) complete the look. Living cihuahuas resist conscription into the one-dimensional role of talismanic object. And yet, Redmalm’s study of chihuahua owner manuals reveals that humans continue to try and convince one another that chihuahuas are the perfect little object with the power to fill a hole in human life—“the chihuahua is a living proof that you can buy love,” one of these manuals reads.

There’s something suggestive about the unsettling fluidity between the life of an animal-shaped object and the life of a living, moving creature. If nothing else, the beckoning cat can remind us that being a little bit magic—being a talismanic object—is only going to get you so far in the human world. The sort of charming specialness that will earn you prime real estate in a window, or on a desk (or a job in cat café), may not actually be the thing that makes you indispensable to humans, after all. Expedient magic is only so advantageous.

An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things