The story of the Lucky Cat is based on a 9th century Chinese proverb: If a cat washes its face and ears, it will rain. A cat washes its face with its paw to ease its anxiety. However, people have long believed that when a cat lifts its paw it is actually a beckoning gesture.
Lucky cats often go by their Japanese name, Maneki Neko, which means “beckoning” or “welcoming cat.” They’re traditionally stationed near doors and windows of shops and other public places, to welcome customers and bring good fortune. While the ones with the moving arm are a lot of fun, Maneki Neko predates double-A batteries by several centuries. Non-moving ceramic models are the most traditional, often with a slot in the top for coins.
The cat has one paw up, while the other holds an ancient coin called a koban, inscribed with the characters “10,000,000 ryo” — basically, a lot of money. Some cats have the right paw raised to beckon people, while others lift their left paw to beckon money and general good luck. Cats of various colors and have specific symbolism, with the blessings on their coins chosen to match. The color correspondences come from the Chinese Feng Shui tradition:
GREEN: Good Luck
PURPLE: Fulfill wishes
There are many stories about who the first Maneki Neko may have been. One, from Edo-era Japan, goes like this: At a time when the capitol was plagued by intrigue, there was a loyal courtier who did his best to go about his honest business and fulfill his duties to the emperor. One day, he was summoned to the offices of a certain nobleman. On his way there, he noticed a cat that seemed to be beckoning to him. Curious, he turned off the road to go and see what the cat wanted, stopping for a moment to scratch its ears. Some noise made him turn back toward the road, and he noticed that he had been about to walk into a trap that the evil nobleman had set to kill him; had he not stepped off the path, he would have been killed. The wise courtier saw that the cat had saved him–and probably saved the emperor too, by revealing the nobleman’s treachery. So he ordered the first Maneki Neko statue to be made, and it brought him luck for the rest of his life.