Japan’s lucky cats, or Maneki Neko, have become a popular good luck charm or symbol. The original story tells of a white cat at the Gotoku-ji temple. The temple was poor, and the monks living there struggled with cold and hunger, yet they shared their food with the cat. One stormy day a group of Samurai passed by. This cat stood outside the door and beckoned to the rich travelers, offering them shelter from the cold. The travelers came into the temple. In some tellings of the story, the place where they had been standing was struck by lightning. With or without having their lives saved, the travelers were so grateful that they gave handsomely to the temple, saving the monks from starvation. The monks were grateful not only to the Samurai, but to the cat as well.
Now, Maneki Noko, also called Happy Cats, Welcoming Cats, or Lucky Cats, are often placed in front of shops and restaurants in Japan to welcome people in and bring prosperity to the business.
The Beckoning Cat is a beautiful picture book version of the tale by by Koko Nishizuka, with a fishmonger’s shop rather than a temple as the setting. The theme of generosity and gratitude is emphasized in this book.
There are a lot of fun online resources to go with this story:
- Read one version of the story of Maneki Neko online. CatChi Cats has another. Daruma magazine has more detail for older readers.
- Sushi Cat has games, including the Concentration memory game. They also have a variety of free Maneki Neko images to dress up your classroom website or computer.
- Download, print, cut, and assemble a paper Maneki Neko. DLTK has a simpler one.
- Action Cat has e-cards with animated beckoning cats. Their form is designed in such a way that it will give good mouse and keyboard practice to young students.
- Coloring Castle has a coloring page.
- Learn about Japan. Mr. Donn has a collection of links to lesson plans and resources. Japanese Teaching Ideas does too.
- The beckoning cat may seem to us to be waving, rather than beckoning. In the United States, we hold our hands upright with the palm facing us and beckon with one or all of our fingers. In Japan, and throughout Asia, this gesture is used to beckon dogs, not people, and is considered rude when directed toward people. To call a person over to you, you would put your fingers downwards, as the cats in the picture do, and beckon with all the fingers. While studying the story of Maneki Neko, make an effort to use this gesture instead of the usual American one. Consider studying about other cross-cultural differences in gestures.
- The beckoning cat is a good luck charm which started in Japanese legend at least a century ago, but has now become popular with people all over the world. Have your class create a survey for the school or the neighborhood to discover whether people’s favorite luck charms correlate with their heritage, or are more universal.
- Take a scientific approach to test the lucky cat. Since Maneki Neko are strongly associated with prosperity and often used in shops and restaurants, you could set up an economics experiment. Find local businesses willing to take part in your experiment. Give half of them paper Maneki Neko (find the links to make them above) and let the other half be the control group. Ask the business owners to keep the cats in their shops for one week. At the end of the week, ask owners to compare the income for the test week with the previous week’s income. Create a chart showing the results (and tell us in the comments!). If this seems too complex, challenge students to design an experiment that would allow them to test the hypothesis, “Lucky cats improve prosperity.” Even without conducting the experiment, they can learn a lot as they figure out how to handle all the variables.