More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Fortune Kitties

I received a Fortune Kitty for Christmas about a decade ago. Actually, three Fortune Kitties. A big one flanked by two smaller furballs. They sat on my desk for years but I never thought to look into the origin of these ceramic critters or what the symbols on the coins they held in their paws meant. I always assumed, “Uh, they’re from Japan and those characters probably stand for, der, ‘fortune.'”

Then, last summer, Marie and I wound up in an Asian import shop during an afternoon down in Utrecht. They had six different Fortune Kitties sitting in their front window, all of them in different colors. We bought the black one. Apparently, the myths surrounding black cats being unlucky has yet to spread to Japan.

Also: come on, isn’t he adorable?

That’s a face we can trust, right? Surely, there’s no reason for us to worry that he’ll come alive one night and, I don’t know, leave dirty dishes in the sink, re-arrange our bookshelf, buy a ton of iPhone apps or anything like that.

A familiar question started tugging at my brain when we got him home: what did the symbols on his coin and the red flag mean? And did the color of cat represent anything? I turned to my sister, Shanna, an authority on all things Japanese and/or “kawaii” for an explanation. Here’s what she had to say:

“The sign on the left means “big luck,” and the one on the right is a traditional, old-style coin called a Koban from the Meiji era. Usually, the cats hold a Ryo coin (“Ryo” refers to the weight of the gold used in it) – about $1000 but the real value varied widely. The Meiji era is not exactly known for stability, lol. THAT symbol, though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen. I had to use a dictionary to translate it. The symbol seems to be saying “cancel/abolish bad luck/misfortune.” It’s odd that this is on a coin that’s usually used to designate a huge amount of money, lol.

Also, here’s some info on the other parts of the cat. His right paw is up, which beckons wealth and luck to come to you. If it were his left he would be beckoning customers. Though sometimes the paws are swapped depending on who you listen to so I guess it could be either but that way is the more common one. As you can see, the writing on the left is on red paper. Red is a lucky color and the paper is commonly stuck on things as a charm in Shintoism – to either seal in something or bless it. So your cat is holding a coin banishing bad luck and it’s blessed with a good luck Shinto charm.

I also found this online since I didn’t remember what colors meant on the cats themselves:

‘Black: Black Maneki Neko is believed to bring good health and keep away evil. These are especially popular with women as they are supposed to be particularly effective at keeping away stalkers. Like red, they can be associated with good health, but very occasionally.'”

If you’re made it this far, you’re probably wondering what “Maneki Neko” means. This translates into English as “Beckoning Cat,” the common name for Fortune Kitties in Japanese. Westerners typically assume that the cats are waving at them but the gesture is a sign that connotes “come on over” in Japan. If you’ve ever seen one of the automated versions waving at you in the window of a restaurant, he’s trying to lure you in, not offer  you a friendly “howdy.”

The origin of the Fortune Kitty is unknown. While some say they date back to the Edo Period, the first evidence comes from a Japanese newspaper article circa 1876 about a shrine in Osaka that had begun distributing them.  The cats grew in popularity over the course of the 20th century and now they’re a staple of Japanese shops and cafes throughout the known world.

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