This post is part of The Jailbreak’s When category: a series of features examining products from the past that might be considered early precursors to the Product Art Movement.
In the late 18th century, a Japanese prostitute named Usugumo lived and worked in a brothel in Yoshiwara, a section of Tokyo comparable to a modern day red-light district. As the story goes, Usugumo had a beloved cat that could often be spotted at her side even while she worked. One night Usugumo woke up to use the bathroom and the cat began nipping incessantly at her dress in a caveat.
Usugumo’s pimp, annoyed by the commotion, walked into the room and proceeded to chop off the cat’s head with a samurai sword, believing it bewitched. The head flew through the air and landed on an imminently attacking snake perched on the toilet. The cat’s teeth pierced the snake, killing it and saving Usugumo’s life.
Saddened by the loss of her faithful companion, Usugumo asked one of her customers to carve a statue of the cat from wood. The customer obliged and her memento became a symbol of good fortune throughout the brothel, then the neighborhood, and then Tokyo and eventually the rest of Japan.
The Usugumo Legend is just one of many stories attempting to explain the origin of the now globally popular Maneki Neko sculpture.
Also known as the ‘Beckoning Cat’—for the placement of one or both of its paws in a come hither position; or the ‘Lucky Cat’—for its mythical ability to bring luck and wealth—the Maneki Neko was born from ancient (and still omnipresent) Japanese superstitions, which suggested that cats were responsible for everything from predicting the weather to sensing domestic disharmony to stealing a dead person’s soul to, most importantly, bringing either good or bad luck.
Fast-forward 300-plus years and the cat, in both its literal and product form, still exists as an emblem of hope for prosperity and fortune in the personal and business lives of the Japanese and, through cultural transference, other Asian nations as well.
For instance: nearly every restaurant, shop or business in New York City’s Chinatown has a Maneki Neko sitting in its windowsill. Some suggest that its prevalence in places like Chinatown is due to yet another fable about dueling ramen shop owners. One day the proprietor of shop No. 1, looking to set itself apart and attract more customers, placed in the window what is considered to be the luckiest Maneki Neko: the Calico (a trio of black, orange and white colors). The proprietor of shop No. 2 noticed and followed suit, and eventually every business in the town had a Maneki Neko in its window. At that point it’s also believed that due to high demand, the sculpture started to be crafted out of porcelain or ceramic, rather than wood or stone.
Because the Maneki Neko is offered in a number of color-coded variations, it’s up to the individual to choose which version best suits his or her underlying needs and desires. The white one connotes to purity and is said to bring positive things; the black cat, while ominous in western lore, references good health and wards off evil; gold is associated with wealth and prosperity; green brings academic success; and red is helpful in matters of the heart.
Traditionally, the Maneki Neko is portrayed with its paw or paws facing forward, fingers down, in what westerners have come to associate with a wave. In Asian cultures, however, the gesture of palm-out-with-repeatedly-moving-up-and-down fingers translates to a beckon. Due to a mistake in translation, and in an attempt to eschew confusion, manufacturers began rendering the sculpture with its paw facing the other directing, hoping that American consumers would better understand the motion.
This attempt was largely futile and most Maneki Nekos are now fashioned, as they have been historically, in one of three different positions: right paw up, which is said to represent wealth and good fortune, and is often found in shops or other stores; left paw up, which connotes to the literal beckoning of customers, and ergo is usually present in restaurants and drinking establishments; and both paws up, which is protective in nature, and generally placed in non-food, -beverage or -hospitality businesses and homes (much like the Buddha). Finally, some suggest that high-raised paws indicate good fortune will come in abundance from distant places.
In large thanks to the emergence of Chinatown shops selling it as a souvenir, the Maneki Neko has at times found its way into the American zeitgeist via derivative products from pop culture brands such as Hello Kitty, Kid Robot and Pokémon (images shown below; in order from left to right). The mythical cat also influenced childhood banking practices, as the Maneki is almost always found to be clutching a good coin, or Koban, among other objects. Westerners borrowed the idea and have adopted and adapted it into what is now known as a Piggy Bank.
While attaching a definitive ‘yes’ to the Maneki Neko’s inclusion as an early Product Art creation is more conjecture than fact, it embodies principals considered essential to the craft: (1) mass produced and commercially distributed, (2) influenced by popular culture, and (3) using a product to convey artistic, or in this case spiritual, expression. Either way, the history of the Maneki Neko provides a fascinating glimpse into a product that transcended time, continents and alterations to become a successful and enduring compliment to Japanese culture in America and around the world.
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