The Origin of the Maneki Neko Retold
By RYOKO OHNISHI
RAFU STAFF WRITER
Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2007
Local photographer fulfills his dream of becoming a children’s book author.
RYOKO OHNISHI/Rafu Shimpo
Hirotaka (Sunny) Seki, a 60-year-old
Senryu poem instructor and photographer,
has transformed his hobby into a profession
with his debut as a children’s book author.
“Japanese Culture is not just anime
and manga,” Seki says.
Above and at right, scenes from “The Tale of the
Hirotaka Seki, 60, of San Gabriel, didn’t know what to answer when one day his youngest son, Mario Jonathan, 9, asked him, “Daddy, is the Maneki Neko from Japan?”
Uncertain of the origin of the famous lucky cat sculpture found in homes, stores and restaurants, Seki replied, “Yes, Mario, I believe so, but let me check.”
Seki started checking the Internet for the origin of the Maneki Neko. His discovery of a handful of different variations on the story peaked his interest. Then came a moment of inspiration.
“I found it fascinating, since I didn’t know such a folktale existed behind the creation of the Maneki Neko,” Seki said. “I’m from Tokyo, but I never knew that the Maneki Neko was derived from Gotokuji Temple in Setagaya-ward.”
According to Seki, the story of the Maneki Neko began about 350 years ago, on a stormy night with a cat who saved a boy’s life. “It was similar in idea to the Chinese lesson of inga-oho or karma,” Seki said.
Seki decided to write up the story in his own words along with illustrations. Until then, Seki had spent the last 40 years as a professional photographer running his own business, “Sunny Seki Photography” in El Monte.
“Illustrations are my hobby but I always wanted to become an ekaki (painter), like my father,” he said. “It was about 5 years ago, after having 9 children (7 boys and 2 girls, with the eldest 26 years old now) that I thought to try to pursue my dreams of becoming a children’s book author,” said Seki, who was in his mid-50s and feeling the pressure with retirement around the corner.
Aside from his photography business, Seki has also worked as a Senryu poem instructor under the pen name Sankyaku, meaning “tripod.”
Seki selects Senryu poems that people write and introduces his column “Rashin Senryu” in the Japanese editorial section of The Rafu Shimpo.
Seki studied photography and art and received a bachelor’s degree at Nihon University (Nichigei) in Tokyo. After moving to the United States in 1971, he studied illustration at Pasadena Art Center College of Design.
In the 1980s, Seki was working as a freelance photographer for Japanese magazines, Hot Dog Press and Popeye when the fad of “West Coast Culture” was big among Japanese youngsters.
After the popularity of “West Coast Culture” began dying down, Seki started his own photo studio with his wife, Judy.
Seki’s passion for creating art never faded away, nor did his dreams of becoming a children’s book author.
Working late into the night, Seki began drawing pictures and putting stories together in 2002. He also began submitting his works to East Coast publishers, 50 to be exact.
In return, he received 50 rejection letters.
Seki tried again. He submitted a story called “Angeline” to a contest hosted by the Orange County Society of Books for Children of Writers and Illustrators. “Angeline” is the story of a girl who loses her parents in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While growing up at her grandmother’s house in Southern California, the girl discovers a magical vacuum cleaner that allows her to fly and explore new places.
Seki’s story and illustrations received first place, but was declined at the last minute.
“I was so happy to be selected for first place since whoever gets first place was guaranteed to have the book published. However, when my name was announced and the top editor saw me, it was obvious that she didn’t expect the author was an Asian man since my illustrations were in Western style. She looked so surprised, and when I spoke to her, I noticed that she was no longer interested,” Seki recalls.
“There were no Oriental elements in “Angeline,” however, I realized that worked negatively,” said Seki. “This wasn’t discrimination, but a cultural expectation. For example, when you think of a Flamenco dancer in Spain. What if the main dancer were an Asian-looking person. Wouldn’t he or she be accepted differently than a Spanish-looking dancer? Simply, I didn’t match the editor’s cultural expectations.”
It took Seki about one year to finish creating his second story, “The Tale of Lucky Cat.”
Seki’s son, Mario said, “ I posed for my Dad to sketch the posture of the boy in the story.”
Seki had Mario hold a cat, however, the cat moved a lot, so Seki ended up using a stuffed animal for a model.
“I colored with colored pencils but I tried to simplify the design and drew the faces of the characters as big as possible,” Seki said.
According to Seki’s book “The Tale of the Lucky Cat,” the Maneki Neko was created as a memory of a dead cat that saved a boy’s life on a stormy night in the Edo period. After Seki finished writing the story and drawing pictures, he submitted it to various publishers.
Some of the East Coast publishers told him that they couldn’t publish his story since they didn’t know what the Maneki Neko was. Seki’s story was again declined.
Last year, after receiving many rejection letters, Seki went to the UCLA Book Fair and met with a local exhibitor who was mainly publishing and distributing children’s books through the school systems.
“It was a miracle. They called me two weeks after submission and told me that they wanted to publish it,” Seki said. “I believe that was because the publisher was located in Gardena, so they already knew the Maneki Neko. … I am very thankful to the Japanese Americans who paved the way for me.”
Seki’s pen name, Sunny Seki, comes from his work as a freelance photographer; there is always sun when Seki shoots.
In terms of future works, Seki says, “I would like to discover more episodes of Japanese culture that are famous but the roots and origin are not known. I would like everybody to know that Japanese culture is not just anime and manga. There are a lot of heartwarming folk tales and legends that have been told for many centuries.”
“The Tale of the Lucky Cat” (2007), published by East West Discovery Press, is $25 hardcover (shipping included). Available through www.eastwestdiscovery.com. Contact Hirotaka (Sunny) Seki at email@example.com or (626) 280-7600.