In Japan, these figures are exhibited in front of shops, restaurants and businesses. According to folk wisdom, a raised right paw brings good luck, while a left raised paw brings clients. The lucky cats come in different forms: statues, key rings, flasks with air fresheners, etc.
When looking at the Manekineko, you might think that it's waving. In fact, it's calling you to come closer and do something. In the East (particularly in Japan), a person who beacons someone will raise their hand and move their fingers until they attract attention. Europeans do it similarly, but with their hand directed toward themselves. The cats for the Western markets often have a "Europeanized" paw direction.
The meaning of the raised paw changed over time. Cats with two raised paws are the best (just in case). It's believed that the higher the paw, the more luck the cat will draw.
The traditional color for "lucky cats" is a mix of white, black and red - the so-called "tricolor". The "tricolor" is common for the Japanese Bobtails. Along with the classical coloring they also make the following one-color figurines: White (purity), Black (reflects evil), Red (drives away evil and disease), Golden (wealth), and Pink (love).
Typically, the cats wear collars and bells. This symbolism has its roots in ancient times, when domestic cats in wealthy families wore collars and bells (to locate the pet). The figures can also wear a bib - clothing for cats in ancient families. Sometimes they are depicted with a coin (koban - worth about one thousand dollars) in their paws, to attract good luck and wealth. The figurines of cats with coins are often used as piggy banks.
There are many legends associated with these cats:
Temple Cat: A wealthy lord was hiding under a tree during a storm near a temple. Suddenly he saw the priest's cat waving to him. He followed the cat, and the next moment lightning struck the tree under which he was hiding. Soon the lord and the priest became friends, and the temple became very prosperous. When the priest's cat died, the first Maneki Neko prototype was made in its honor.
Young Lady: A young lady had a beloved cat. One night the cat began to drag her away. Another woman (her hostess) decided that the cat was bewitched and cut its head off. The cat's head flew off and crushed a snake ready to attack. The young lady was truly saddened by her pet's death. One man brought her a wooden cat figure to gladden her.
Old Woman: One old woman was so poor that she had to sell her cat. Later, her cat appeared to her in a dream and advised her to make a cat figurine from clay. In the morning the old woman did as advised and sold the figure. She started to make more figurines and sell them - thus she became very rich.
The image of Maneki Neko had a great influence on modern culture: the "Hello, Kitty!" character and the "Manekineko" book by Bruce Sterling, where the paw gesture is the symbol of a secret network based on artificial intelligence. This talisman in commonly used in feng shui. You can build your own figures of the lucky cats; they will draw luck and wealth into your home.