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The following articles were originally published in The Shelbyville News in the column “Letters Home:  A Hoosier in Japan.”



Send questions and comments to me at toddjayleonard@yahoo.com.

Book Description

Letters Home

What types of holidays do Japanese people celebrate? What is the educational system like in Japan? What are Japanese festivals like? What are some of the customs and traditions of the Japanese people? Professor Todd Jay Leonard, writing from the perspective of living and working in Japan, provides in this fascinating book the answers to these and many other questions.
Letters Home: Musings of an American Expatriate Living in Japan delivers a firsthand account of daily Japanese life through the eyes and personal experiences of Professor Leonard who has enjoyed an ongoing relationship with Japan and the Japanese people for nearly twenty-five years. 

This anecdotal book of essays, written in the style of personal letters, offers commentary on a wide range of topics and issues including culture, history, education, language, society, and religion of modern Japan from the point-of-view of an American expatriate who has made Japan his home. 

The author’s friendly, down-to-earth, yet authoritative, style of writing will transport you to modern Japan, where you will learn about the customs and traditions of this most fascinating country. This book can be enjoyed by anyone who has an interest in learning about Japan and its people.http://www.amazon.com/Letters-Home-Musings-American-Expatriate/dp/0595283098/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1299907225&sr=1-2

In Japan, a waving cat indicates good luck


I enjoy it when friends and family from Shelbyville come to visit me in Japan. It gives me a chance to show them my Japanese life up close and in person.

It also allows me the opportunity to see Japan through their eyes, as they experience Japanese daily life for the very first time. I call this the “fresh-eyes” approach, because they often behold a part of Japanese culture that I no longer notice because it has become rather ordinary to me after living here for so many years.

It isn’t until I visit Shelbyville that I think about how culturally different my everyday life really has become while living here. When I first arrived in Japan to live, I found everything to be exotic and fantastic. I certainly took a lot more photos in those days than I do now. I felt I had to get a photographic record of everything to prove that I was actually experiencing it.

Recently, when two of my cousins came to visit, we took more pictures in the 10 days they were here than I have taken in 10 years. Everything fascinated them … and they wanted it all on film. This was their first trip to Japan, so I made sure they got to see and experience a variety of different aspects of Japanese culture, life, traditions and customs.

Immediately upon their arrival, as we were going to our hotel in Tokyo, they noticed a custom which I am so used to now that I rarely ever take notice of it anymore: ceramic cats with raised paws in shop windows, enticing passing customers to enter. In many small shops, the owners place these cats either in the window or near the door as good-luck charms.

These cats have big eyes, are usually white with hand-painted accents around their faces and bodies and always have one paw raised in a beckoning fashion. These cats are called “manekineko” and the idea behind the raised paw is to beckon customers into the shop, which in turn brings in cash. If the “manekineko” is waving its left paw, this is to bring in more customers; if the feline is raising its right paw, it is to bring in more money.

White cats are considered to be lucky; black cats are used to protect the premises against evil spirits; and red cats are used to ward off bad luck and evil. Besides the traditional uses of these friendly felines, fashion-conscious young people are choosing “manekineko” that have a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and textures that are more trendy. This proves that not only shop owners are benefiting from having the waving cats around — individuals are displaying them in their homes and offices, as well, to help make these spaces luckier in matters of not only money … but even love.

How did this tradition begin? It is difficult to know the true origin, but one popular legend that I heard from an elderly Japanese friend tells of a feudal lord who was caught in a deluge. As he was making his way down the street, he noticed a cat at a temple motioning to him with its paw to come in out of the rain. He obeyed the cat’s request and later was so grateful to the cat that he became a regular worshiper at the temple. His presence at the temple encouraged others to start attending, which in turn made the temple very rich.

Another version of how this legend got started features a geisha courtesan who was narrowly saved from being bitten by a poisonous snake. Her feline companion suddenly raised its paw and waved it toward the snake, successfully fending off the snake attack. This protective gesture by her cat surely saved her from being bitten. Hence, having a waving cat near you was considered to be very fortuitous.

No matter what the true origin of this custom is, the tradition of having a beckoning cat in stores or homes is here to stay. Some of the cats are quite elaborate, but most are smallish in size, with modest decoration adorning its head and body.

Cat lovers will be pleased to know that there is a movement afoot in Japan to make Sept. 29 the national “manekineko” day because the date 9/29 can be pronounced “kuru fuku” in Japanese, which means “may luck come.”

Japanese will often connect words to the pronunciation of numbers. For instance, I remember when the department-store chain Daei had a 39-yen sale after its baseball team won its division. The sound of the numbers 3 and 9 are “san kyu” which in English sounds like “thank you.” It was the store’s way of saying “thank you” to its customers.

I do suggest, however, that if you ever encounter a live, waving cat that you pay special attention to your surroundings, especially if it isn’t raining. After all, it could be warning you of a snake that is too close for comfort … or it could just be a friendly cat. If you are in front of a store, take note of which paw it is using — a raised left paw wants you as a customer, and a waving right paw wants your cash.

Either way, the cat gets you where it counts — in the wallet.



Monday, August 01, 2005

A waving cat in the window of a traditional Japanese restaurant beckons customers to enter the establishment. Submitted photo