The origin of this figure is the following tale.
In the Edo era (1603-1868) the Daimyo of Hikone was out in a storm. He turned to see a cat standing at the entrance of a shabby Buddhist temple. The cat winked at him and gestured him over with a raised paw. Fascinated, the Daimyo went over to get a closer look. Suddenly a bolt of lightning smashed into the ground, right at the spot where he had been. Amazed by his good fortune and the prescient powers of the cat, he decided to become the patron of the temple and rescued it from destitution.
Thus the maneki-neko became a symbol of good luck and of prosperity.