Maneki Neko is a ceramic cat that many Japanese merchants put in the front of their store as good luck. It's also referred to as the "beckoning cat".
Translating the hand motion: People from North America might think of Maneki Neko more as a waving cat than a beckoning cat because to us it looks like the cat's paw is waving. Here in Canada, when I want someone to come, I show them the back of my hand and "wave" to myself (almost fanning myself). In Japan, the beckoning motion is the opposite -- the palm of the hand faces the person being beckoned (which looks like a wave to a North American). OK, that was hard to explain in words... but hopefully it made sense.
If you see Maneki Neko in North America, it may actually have it's palm turned the other way so that it looks more like it's beckoning (to us)... I chose to make mine with the Japanese palm.
But why that motion? If you think of what a cat looks like when it starts to clean it's face and ears, you'll see a bit of similarity in the way the Maneki Neko is holding its paw. Cats often clean themselves when they're anxious about something and having visitors come to the door makes them anxious. People in Japan took that habit and turned it into a lucky charm. Merchants put the cat in their front window to "beckon" customers into their store.
Left paw/right paw: Maneki Neko with their left paw up were the original pose -- they are used as a lucky charm to beckon in customers. Maneki Neko with their right paw up are a lucky charm to beckon money or good fortune.
Color of the cat: Tri colored (white with yellow and black splotches), all white or all black Maneki Neko are available. The tri-colored are the most common (original) and were likely chosen because tri-colored cats exist but are rare in real life, the all white represent purity and the all black ward off evil.
The Story of Maneki Neko (thanks to Jon for
sending this in!):
In the 17th century, there was a poverty-stricken temple in Tokyo, Japan. The temple's priest was very poor, but he shared what little food he had with his pet cat.
One day, a wealthy traveler was caught in a storm and took refuge under a big tree near the temple. While he waited under this temporary shelter, the man noticed the cat beckoning him to come inside the temple. This was so surprising that he went to have a closer look at the unusual cat. At that moment, the tree was struck by lightning.
The wealthy man befriended the poor priest. The priest and his cat never went hungry again.
When the cat died he was buried in the Goutokuji Temple's cat cemetery and the Maneki Neko was made in honor of him.