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A Menagerie of Good Fortune

Cats, dogs, horses and birds, oh my!  These are just a few of the animals that represent good fortune in Japan.  They are a common sight in business and homes around Tokyo and are often printed on talismans that can be purchased from the temples and shrines that abound in the city of Tokyo.  Folklore and tradition play a big part in the symbolic use of animals to ensure good fortune and prosperity to those who display them.  Here are just a few of the creatures in the menagerie:

Maneki-neko is a cat with a raised paw that is displayed to ensure a prosperous business.  It’s raised paw is said to beckon customers and money into shops.  You will see maneki-neko with either the left or right paw raised – if the left is raised the neko is beckoning customers to enter an establishment and if the right is raised the intention is to attract money and good fortune. 

Inu-hariko is a paper mache dog that is said to help women in child birth and in raising their children.  The legend began with a traveling teacher who wrote out, sealed and left a tightly sealed blessing in an amulet near the entrance to a farmer’s barn in thanks for his hospitality.  In the years that followed, the farmer was blessed with bountiful crops and became curious as to what words of wisdom were written inside the amulet.  When the farmer opened the tightly sealed amulet a dog jumped out and ran away, along with his successful crops.  The only word inscribed on the paper was ‘inu’, the Japanese word for dog.  It is unclear how the Inu-Hariko has come to be associated with child birth and parenting but it is a common sight on children’s toys and in nurseries throughout the country.

Akabeko, a red paper mache cow, is said to keep away misfortune and illness.  The legend of Akabeko dates back to the year 807 when a cow that was used to haul timber for the construction of a temple refused to leave after the temple was complete and became a symbol of Buddhist devotion.  Eventually toys were created in the image of Akabeko and the legend was strengthened when children who owned the toys were spared during a smallpox outbreak.

Wara-uma is a straw horse meant to ensure a bountiful harvest.  Local legend tells us the straw horses were first used when a prized herd of horses belonging to a warrior were taken over by an evil spirit.  Straw horses were made and given to a Shinto priest who is said to have purified the spirits of the real horses by setting the straw replicas adrift on the outgoing tide.

Tanuki, the Raccoon dog, is famous in Japan as a symbol of protection from fire and theft and is said to be able to help businesses flourish.

Lastly, one of the most symbolic animals is Japan is the crane, or tsuru, which appears in art, folklore and literate.  The crane symbolizes good fortune, peace and longevity.  The paper crane is also one of the most well know forms in origami, Japanese paper folding, and is one of the first items a new folder will make.

When you visit Tokyo be sure to see how many of this menagerie of good fortune that you can find…and let me know if I missed one of your favorites!

Image Credit:  Wikimedia, PD-Maneki Neko, Hariko Inu Osaka, personal collection & Flickr, Mesh Crane