That cats bring luck isn't a new concept. The Egyptians were so enamoured with cats that they even worshiped the cat goddess Bast. If vermin including cobra snakes were problems in your home and you discovered that cats hunt and kill both (!!), you would probably be fond of cats, too.
Almost everyone's seen a Maneki-Neko 招き猫, translated literally as "beckoning cat". Sometimes they are perched at the entrance of a shop, other times sitting on a shelf looking over the sushi chefs toward the seated customers, or facing the door of the restaurant. Some Maneki-Neko have a swinging arm (motorized, mechanical, sometimes solar-powered) that looks like it's waving at you. Others are fixed with one of their two arms up, paw down.
Cultural side note: The way we gesture "come here" is very different than the Japanese way. We either use a finger in a curling up motion to say "come here", or swing our arm in the direction we want someone to go, or use our thumb to point the same, in a "come on over this way" gesture. Don't ever use the American/Western finger curling come here gesture in Japan. It's considered rude in Japan, and in some other Asian countries you'll get thrown in jail for using it (or worse).
Instead, the Japanese will extend their arm partially or entirely with palm of hand facing the earth, and while keeping the arm relatively still, wave the hand down pointing to earth, then back up to a neutral position, palm facing the earth. I made a little video demonstrating this here.
Where does Maneki Neko originally come from?
Maneki Neko comes from the Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, just a five minute walk from Miyanosaka Station on the Tokyu Setagaya Line.
In Japan, there are temples for just about everything. From fertility to business luck and beyond. The Maneki Neko is said to bring good luck in its direction. If you're looking to increase your luck, a visit to the Gotokuji Temple is in order.
There are many myths and legends surrounding the origins of the Maneki Neko. The most dramatic of stories is that of a cat who was cared for by a priest at the temple during the Edo Period (1603-1868). One day a Japanese feudal lord named Ii Naotaka was passing by the temple, and Naotaka and his servants took shelter from a thunderstorm under a tree near the temple. That was when they saw the cat that appeared to be waving at them, beckoned to come inside the temple. Curious, they followed the cat into the temple and were greeted by the priest. Shortly after entering the temple the tree was struck by lightning. It is said Naotaka was grateful to the priest and offered forward gifts to the temple, all the result of the cat.
The Gotokuji temple sells the Maneki Neko statues and provides this version of the story on paper along with the statues:
The story of a Monk and a waving cat:
A long time ago when the temple was a shabby hut and the Monk could barely live on the small income he gained as practising mendicant. He had a cat and cared for it like his own child, sharing his own meal with it. One day he said to the cat, "If you are grateful to me, bring some fortune to the temple." After many months, one summer afternoon, the Monk heard sounds around the gate, and there he saw five or six samurai warriors on their way home from hawk hunting, approaching him and leaving their horses behind. They said, "We were about to pass in front of your gate, but there a cat was crouching and suddenly it lifted one arm and started waving and waving when it saw us. We were surprised and intrigued, and that brought us to come here to ask for some rest." So the Monk served his bitter tea and told them to relax. Suddenly the sky darkened and heavy rain began to fall with thunder. While they waited a long time for the sky to clear, the Monk preached Sanzei-inga-no-hou (past, present, future reasoning sermons).
The samurais were delighted and began to think about converting to the temple. Immediately, one samurai announced, "My name is Naotaka Ii. I am the king of Hikone, Koshu province. Due to your cat's waving, we were able to hear your preaching. This has opened our eyes, and seems to be the start of something new. This must be the Buddha's will." Soon after they returned home, Naotaka Ii donated huge rice fields and crop lands to make the temple grand and generous as it is now.
Because of the cat, fortune had been brought to the temple. Therefore, Gotokuji is called the cat temple. The monk later established the grave of the cat and blessed it. Before long the statue of the cute waving cat was established so that people might remember the episode and worship it. Now everybody knows the temple as the symbol of household serenity, business prosperity, and fulfillment of wishes.
When you visit Tokyo make sure to pick up your own good luck Maneki Neko from the Gotokuji temple. And remember, always be nice to animals, especially cats.