On the Origin of Species: Meowth

Investigating the inspirations behind Pokémon
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  • Monday, July 19, 2010

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This column has been written by Xan Hutcheon. It expresses the views of the columnist, not necessarily those of Bulbagarden networks.

So, stop me if you've heard this one...

Meowth, the Scratch Cat Pokémon

Once upon a time, there was a priest who maintained a temple in Gotokuji, west of Tokyo. The priest kept a cat named Tama, and though he was very poor, he would often share his food with it. One day, though, the priest found that there was no food left, and in his hunger, he shouted at the cat: "I've always fed you in spite of my poverty, so couldn't you do something for this temple for once?" The cat got up and wandered out of the temple.

As it happened, the samurai lord of the district, Ii Naotaka, was out riding near the temple at the time. It started to rain heavily, prompting him to take shelter beneath a tree. He then noticed Tama sitting in front of the temple, beckoning to him. The cat's behavior puzzled him, and so he approached Tama with interest. As he walked, a bolt of lighting struck the tree he had been underneath and brought it crashing down. Tama had saved his life.

The samurai picked up Tama and rushed into the temple. When he discovered that the priest was the owner of the lucky cat, he was filled with gratitude. Gotokuji Temple was adopted as his family temple, and went from being dilapidated to a place of splendor. The priest would never go hungry again, and Tama lived a life of luxury. When Tama died, he was buried with great ceremony, and a shrine to the "beckoning cat" was erected in the temple grounds.

This is just one of many stories that have arisen over the years to explain one of the most ubiquitous cultural symbols in Japan: the maneki neko (招き猫), or beckoning cat. Even if you've never been to Japan, the chances are you'll have seen one. The sculptures, often made of ceramic, depict a cat with one paw raised. It might seem to the Western observer that the cat is waving rather than beckoning, and this is due to a difference in hand gestures between cultures. In Japan, the "beckoning" gesture is to hold up a hand, palm outwards, and repeatedly folding the fingers down over the palm and then back up.

A maneki neko

It's fitting that one of Japan's most recognizable icons was the inspiration for one of the best-known Pokémon of all: Meowth. Meowth's prominent role in the anime has made it a familiar face to anyone with even the most passing familiarity with the series; it might just be the most famous Pokémon besides Pikachu. But how deep does Meowth's association with the beckoning cat of legend go?

Well, Meowth's coloration – mostly light, with some brown spots – is similar to that of the average maneki neko. The maneki neko's patterning, in turn, is thought to be inspired by the Japanese bobtail, a breed of cat with a very short, stumpy tail. Though Meowth evidently has an intact tail, the odd way in which its tail is curled up may still be a nod towards the Japanese bobtail. In much of Meowth's official art, including most of its sprites in the earlier generations, it is depicted with one paw raised in the traditional manner of the maneki neko.

Additionally, the oval emblem on Meowth's head is a koban (小判), an Edo period coin worth one ryō. As a rough guide, one ryō might be considered as equivalent to a thousand dollars in today's money. Maneki neko are frequently depicted with a similar coin, though it is usually indicated to be worth ten million ryō! Just like Tama in the story, maneki neko are said to bring good fortune and wealth.

Koban also form the basis of Meowth's signature attack, Pay Day. This move involves Meowth hurling koban at its opponent, and each use of the move produces money that can be picked up after battle. Meowth is quite the lucky cat, then, but there's more to this particular move than meets the eye. Pay Day's Japanese name is Neko ni Koban (ネコにこばん), meaning 'a coin for a cat'. This is, more or less, the Japanese equivalent of the idiom 'pearls before swine', meaning something offered to someone who is unable to appreciate its value. In this case, a cat cannot appreciate the value of money. Nonetheless, Meowth's Pokedéx entries describe it hoarding coins (if only because it loves shiny objects), and one of its abilities, Pickup, is also tied in with its tendency to attract wealth.

Maneki neko are most frequently seen at the entrances of shops and restaurants, in the hopes that they will bring customers and prosperity to the business. There is a huge variety of styles and colors of maneki neko, with each one having significance. For instance, a raised right paw is said to bring good luck and money, while a raised left paw brings customers. A white body, symbolizing purity, also brings luck, while a black body wards off evil spirits, and a golden body is thought to be the best for bringing in wealth. Part tradition and part superstition, the maneki neko represents yet another fascinating practice that enriches the cultural tapestry of Japan. Within the games themselves, Meowth might not be anything special, but it has a proud heritage behind it: a tale of wealth, good fortune, and a humble cat who took pity on his owner's plight.

Meowth, that's right.

On the Origin of Species
By Xan Hutcheon
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