The Suitcase Lady


September 6, 2011, 11:24 pm

Neko (neck oh) is the Japanese word for cat. Maneki Neko means “beckoning cat” and refers to the beloved good luck cat statues that are displayed in stores and businesses all over Japan and wherever Japanese people migrate. The rotund, ceramic cats always have one paw raised to beckon in the good fortune.

Several differing stories explain the origin of the lucky cats. The following is the version given at Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo:

At the beginning of the 17th century, there was a rundown temple in Setagaya, the western part of Tokyo. The priest of the temple was very poor, but he always fed his pet cat, Tama, first. One day a wealthy samurai lord was passing near the temple when a rainstorm began. He took refuge under a large tree and noticed a cat beckoning him into the temple gate. As he entered the gate, the tree was struck by lightning. Tama had saved his life. To show his gratitude, the lord saved the temple from poverty. Tama was buried in Gotokuji’s cat cemetery, and Maneki Neko was invented to honor Tama.

Not wanting to stand in the way of good luck, we’ve always had several small versions of these charming cats around the house. But on a trip to Los Angeles, we came across a shop stocked with shelves and shelves of Nekos from thimble size to large wastebasket size. The huge ones were an incredible bargain, and, despite the fact that carrying home a giant, fragile cat in a carry on bag was ludicrous, we bought the jumbo sized model.

Miraculously, the cat arrived home in one piece and was enshrined in our entrance hall in front of a window. His steadfast raised paw waved in good fortune for about six months.

Then, one day, a fly was buzzing high up on the window above our cat statue. Our real cat, Pi, made a splendid leap for the fly, fell on Manieki Neko’s head and caused the cat to crash forward on its nose and shatter. My husband spent an entire afternoon meticulously gluing all the pieces back together.

Unfortunately, the reconstituted Neko only had two months remaining. This time it was a moth at the window that triggered Pi’s leap. Manieki Neko’s luck had finally run out.

We recently did have the good fortune to visit an art exhibit at The Mingei Musuem in San Diego where a collection of 155 Maneki Nekos were on display. Highlights follow.

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