This exhibition includes selections from a collection of 155 cats given to the Museum by collector Billie Moffitt. Made in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, each cat is unique. Most are made of clay, but some are wood, metal, ceramic and papier mâché.
Since the Edo period (1603-1868) a fabricated cat with a paw upraised in the Japanese gesture of beckoning has been considered a good luck charm, drawing good fortune to individuals and businesses. Maneki neko are common sights in local Japanese and Chinese restaurant windows, where they silently beckon to potential customers.
Legends about maneki neko’s abilities to bring good fortune abound. Among them is the seventeenth century story of a poor monk and his pet cat that lived in a ramshackle temple. Although the temple was falling to pieces, the monk fulfilled his duties and fed his cat with a share of his meager rations. One day, the monk’s usual good cheer deserted him, and lamenting his poverty, he fell into despair, telling the cat that he wished it could help him prosper. The cat went outside to contemplate the monk’s words. As he sat, he cleaned his face with his paw. A sudden thunderstorm forced a passing nobleman, Lord Ii Naotaka of Hikone District, to take shelter under a nearby tree. Seeing the cat, which seemed to be beckoning to him, the lord left his refuge to investigate. Lightning struck, and the tree fell on the place where the lord had been standing. Knowing that the cat had saved his life, Lord Ii became the temple’s patron, bringing it prosperity. Eventually the cat died and was buried in the temple’s cat cemetery. In his honor a monument of a beckoning cat, the maneki neko, was erected. The Gōtokuji Temple, as the poor monk and his cat’s temple is now called, still stands in Tokyo. It is the temple of the Ii Clan and famed for its array of maneki neko.
Asian art expert Alan Scott Pate has written the first major work in any language on this beguiling facet of Japanese folk art. A volume of the same name as the exhibition will be published by the Museum in time for its opening. Pate is also the author of two significant books on traditional Japanese dolls and was curator of the Museum’s NINGYŌ exhibition in 2005.