Micha Robertson is in love with “lucky cats.”
Tucked away in an artist studio in the Walnut Hills neighborhood of Cincinnati, Robertson has put together a museum entirely devoted to Maneki Neko, a specific style of cat figurine born out of a Japanese legend that has since crossed over to other countries.
As the story goes, a priest from a temple in need of some TLC took in a stray white cat and subsequently named it Tama. With the temple in further disrepair, the priest lacked the resources to care for the cat properly, and sent it out into the world to fend for itself. Tama didn’t go far, however, even as a storm gathered overhead. A samurai Lord named Ii Naotaka and his men sought shelter under a nearby tree. They saw Tama’s paw raised as if beckoning them and decided to approach the cat. As they moved away from the tree, it was struck by lightning. The group followed the cat to the temple, and from then on the temple prospered. When Tama died, he was buried in the temple cemetery and a statue was made in his memory. Before long, statues of beckoning cats began sprouting up in people’s homes, in businesses, and in temples, all in hopes of bringing good luck to their occupants.
Robertson, who runs the museum along with her husband, has at least a thousand lucky cats, and they run the gamut from traditional to pop culture-themed, old to new, tiny to gigantic. She’s been collecting for about a dozen years, and like any good collector story, it started innocently enough.
“I was familiar with them forever and a day,” Robertson says. “I guess just because where I was I didn’t see them a lot.”
She moved to Cincinnati in 2001 and as part of her job bid on Japanese auctions on Yahoo! Japan, which she says is “pretty much eBay in Japan.” She’d been collecting anime and other things. “Right about then I got a couple of lucky cats” she says, and soon enough it became a healthy obsession.
“They all have their own little thing,” she says, as I observe one cat holding a telephone, one fashioned after Garfield, and another with right foot raised, all in one case alone. “They’re moving into pop culture more…designer vinyl toys.”
Robertson’s collection is impressive. There’s a black and white cat presiding over a large bowl which contains a number of gold cups each containing a smaller cat; lucky cat-themed drinks and snacks; one that sings and dances to the clap of your hands; another painted with an ornate, flowery design; books and magazines; flannel prints; Mickey and Minnie Mouse-themed cats; ceramic, plastic, wooden, plush, and vinyl cats; themed slot machines, fans, snow globes, and clocks; a Hula dancing cat; paper dolls, pins, banners, shirts, and nightlights; even such novelties as the lucky cat AFLAC duck. In all, it’s a kind of Lucky Cat paradise.
Maneki Neko dates back centuries, and legends besides the aforementioned origin story are abound. In one, a fisherman feeds scraps to his money lender’s cat, who repays the favor by bringing the fisherman coins to his house so that he can buy necessary medicine. He goes to thank the cat only to find that the money lender has killed the cat for stealing the coins; the fisherman creates a sculpture in remembrance which brings good fortune to himself and others.
Robertson also tells me about the tanuki, a name for the Japanese raccoon dog (a real animal), which has roots in ancient folklore as well. In one legend, a tanuki steals food from a house; the man returns so he turns himself into a teapot. When the man warms the kettle over the fire, the tanuki can’t keep his shape so his arms and legs pop out and he runs away. Like foxes, the tanuki is considered to be more malevolent than lucky, but can still bring good fortune.
While the Lucky Cat Museum is unassuming from the outside – a small sign on the front door of the studio is the only official clue you’re in the right place, and you have to be let in – it had even humbler beginnings. The first four years of its existence, Robertson’s museum was confined to a room about a 1/3 of the size of the current one, with no heating or air, and it was open only by appointment. She moved into the present room in 2016.
“We have funky hours because I have a day job,” Robertson explains about the museum, which is open Tuesday through Saturday 3-6. “I’ve been there 14 years and luckily they are very understanding, so I work there from 9 to 2:30 and then come here and open up the museum. On Mondays, the Lucky Cat Museum is closed and she works a full day.
“We get a little bit of everything,” she says about the patrons. “Some people are just like, ‘What is that?’ Some people are specifically interested in Japanese culture, some are interested in lucky cats, some are just cat people in general.”
Lucky cats became popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, she explains, when one designer made them “rounder and cuter in the face, and pudgier.” Later they became more associated with coins, and today you see them in many businesses and homes all across the world.
They come in many colors, white being the most common and the calico (three-color) the luckiest. Black and red, she explains, were early colors for protection against evil spirits and for good health. Nowadays, pink and red can be for love, blue for education, health, and traffic safety, green for health, yellow for prosperity, gold for gaining money, and black still for warding off evil.
“There’s some I really wish I knew the stories behind them,” she adds. “It’s really hard to date a lot of them, a lot of the sculptors don’t put the date on them and a lot of sellers don’t know.”
There are two lucky cat museums in Japan. The original one, she says, has “thousands of pieces.” The owner of the museum has written books she owns. The other one is “orientated more towards the art side of things.”
Here in the U.S., a room in a historical museum in Alliance, Ohio, has a lucky cat room furnished by her friend. In North Carolina, the American Museum of the Cat recently opened, which may or may not have Maneki Neko.
“The three of us form the ‘Purr-muda Triangle,’” Robertson jokes. “I like puns.”
Robertson has yet to visit Japan. The closest she’s gotten is the Japanese Culturefest in Lexington, Kentucky, a couple weeks prior to my visit.
Before I leave, I have to ask about her car, which is a walking advertisement for the museum and resembles – you guessed it – a lucky cat.
“It’s a ’97 Suzuki S-90,” she says. “My dad and I painted it in 2003. The windows don’t roll down anymore, the stereo doesn’t work, the air conditioner doesn’t work.”
But it’s iconic, and certain to draw questions and museum visitors. For the curator of the only known lucky cat museum in the United States, it’s, well, ‘purr-fect.’
Many thanks to Micha Robertson for the tour, which took place October 2017. More information can be found on the museum website.