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Maneki-Neko and The Temple of Go-To-Ku-Ji

Excerpted from THE LIFE, HISTORY AND MAGIC OF THE CAT, Fernand Mery, translated by Emma Street, Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, New York, 1978.

In Japan, cats are most particularly venerated after their deaths.  In Tokyo, they have their own temple, the temple of Go-To-Ku-Ji.  It is small in size, but perfectly proportioned, and concealed by foliage.  It is typically Japanese, both in style and in the material used, which is crossed battens of wood.  It opens with a great doorway, a kind of lattice barrier, flanked on both sides by two less conspicuous, bell-shaped entrances. 

This temple is served by priests who wear sacred vestments and intone gentle religious chants for the repose of these small feline souls.   Before entering Go-To-Ku-Ji it is traditionally necessary to pass before the famous 'guardians of duty' who remind visitors that to live is to pray, work and forget oneself in thinking of others, and that the death of a simple cat is, as much as the death of a human being, an event requiring gravity and respect.

At the heart of the temple, on the altar, appears the most astonishing assembly of cats, sculptured, painted and carved in relief.  Cats on cloth and paper, in porcelain and bronze.  There they are crowded one against the other, frozen motionless and mounting guard.  And each one has its small right paw curiously raised to the height of it eyes as if to greet the visitor or attract his attention.  This is the classic way of representing 'Maneki-Neko', the small female cat who lures and enchants people, brings happiness and ensures good luck.

Almost all the cats in this necropolis welcome you this way -- in a seated position with one paw in the air.  However, at a turn of passage, one comes up suddenly against a completely different type of statue.  It represents the 'Spirit-Cat', symbolizing in one image all the cats buried in this district.  For the Japanese Buddhist, to bury his small companion in this temple or nearby, and to offer at this altar on the same day a painted or sculptured likeness of this cat, is both to offer homage to fidelity and to gain a very reassuring pledge of tranquility and good luck for himself in his own lifetime.

The cemetery stretches out around the altar.  The graves are covered with tablets inscribed with prayers for the souls of the cats, and with invocations to Buddha, God of Wisdom and Peace, whose image appears in the corner of each tablet.  The purpose of all that appears on these tablets is to wish the dead cats the swiftest possible attainment of Nirvana, as this will mean that the human soul of which each animal was merely the earthly shell will have achieved at last its final perfection.

But, as there is not a religion in the world that manages on thought and words alone, so, under the great doorway at the entrance to the temple, there are set out for sale all kinds of sculptured cats, in hardwood, stone and black marble.   Any of the faithful can purchase here the statue they find that most resembles their dear departed.  The more wealthy cat-owners, however, disdain these prefabrications.  A rich man usually commissions a statue to be specially made during the lifetime of his favorite cat.

It is only in Japan that the cat has this religious significance after its death.  And although one might suppose that this cult of the soul of dead cats originated in ancient times, it is interesting to note that the temple of Go-To-Ku-Ji was built barely two hundred years ago.  The choice of the cat to figure in the cult seems to have been simply the choice of an animal that was symbolically pure enough to act as the messenger between Buddha, the unique and the perfect, and the five hundred million Asians who adore him.

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