Though commonly called “waving cat” in the Western world, these cats are actually performing a gesture that is understood in Japanese culture to convey beckoning. Statues are usually made from plastic or ceramic, with the arm as a separate piece that articulates, moving rhythmically up and down. These figures are often found in the entryways of stores or restaurants, and are meant to bring good fortune and financial luck to those who encounter them.
The cat is usually a calico without a tail, but not always. Different colored cats have different meanings: white means purity, black means safety, gold means wealth, red means protection from evil and sickness, pink means love, and green means education. It typically wears a red collar with a bell, and sometimes features a bib, and may be holding a coin. Occasionally both hands are raised, but more often a single paw is raised. It may be either the left or the right, though a left paw is meant to attract customers to a business, while a right paw is supposed to bring good fortune and money.
These figures were first seen in either Tokyo or Kyoto during the Edo period in Japan, around the 1850s. The origins of the cat are disputed, with many legends telling the tale of the first maneki-neko. One tells of a wealthy man who was saved when a cat beckoned him away from a tree that was soon struck by lightning. The cat led the wealthy man to a temple, and because his life had been saved, he gave lots of money to the temple, which prospered and eventually erected a statue in honor of the cat that started it all.