David Craig sent in this picture which showed up on the Facebook Armchair Linguists page, originally posted by Olexa Stomachenko; no one seems to know what it means:
First of all, many people who saw this didn't know whether it was Chinese or Japanese, nor whether it read from right to left or from left to right. They also didn't know what the first character was, much less what the whole four character expression meant.
Initial clue: in the top left of the photograph, we see enough of the Russian word суши (i.e., sushi) that we know it must be a sushi stand in Russia. This is underscored by the small, blurry (in the photograph) Russian words above the counter indicating that the stand sells sushi, rolls, and salad. So we'll go on the assumption that the characters should be read and interpreted as Japanese. This, however, does not preclude that the sentiment and even wording might be traditional Chinese.
Since 描磨福寿/猫磨福寿 are not established phrases in Japanese (at least the first two kanji combinations on the right side, 描磨 or 猫磨, are not, no matter whether they are read from left to right or from right to left), On-reading (Chinese style pronunciation) has to be applied rather than Kun-reading (native Japanese style pronunciation), in which case the two versions share the same pronunciation.
1. byouma fukuju (if you romanize the Hiragana transcription)
2. byooma fukuju (if you romanize the actual pronunciation)
Here are the rough possibilities for a literal reading of the characters with Japanese pronunciations transcribed in the Hepburn system):
byōma fukuju 猫磨福寿 ("cat grind blessings longevity")
byōma fukuju 描磨福寿 ("trace grind blessings longevity")
jufuku mabyō 寿福磨猫 ("longevity blessings grind cat")
jufuku mabyō 寿福磨猫 ("longevity blessings grind trace")
As we shall see, there are other possibilities as well. I shall address them in due course.
Next, we have to decide the directionality: right to left or left to right. Although 福寿 ("blessings and longevity") and 寿福 ("longevity and blessings") are both possible, the former occurs three times more frequently than the latter, so this is one argument in favor of a right to left orientation. This right to left supposition is supported by the fact that, no matter how we read the first two characters (starting from the right side), for which see the next paragraph, the whole phrase — considering the probable meanings of the individual characters — seems to read better from right to left (NVNN or VVNN; N = noun, V = verb) than from left to right (NNVN or NNVV). In addition, so far as I know, calligraphy over a sushi stall would usually be in the traditional right to left order.
Now we have to wrestle with whether the first character is 猫 ("cat") or 描 ("trace; draw; touch up; copy; depict"). For whatever reason, most people assumed that it was "cat", and tried to make sense of the phrase by beginning it with that meaning. Since the character is handwritten, it is devilishly difficult, almost impossible, to determine whether it is 猫 or 描, so we'll leave that in abeyance for the moment, and return to a consideration of which it is after taking other evidence into account. If, however, we decide that it is 描 ("trace") rather than 猫 ("cat"), that would fit better with the second character, reading from right to left, 磨 ("mill; rub; grind; dawdle; delay; wear [down / away]; sharpen; polish"), which might be an orthographical error for 摩 ("rub; scrape; stroke" — obviously cognate with 磨). We will return to this possibility below.
Because cats in traditional and contemporary Japan are very cool, many people who encountered the four character phrase under discussion assumed that the first character (from the right) must be 猫. If it really is 猫, then we have to decide which kind of Japanese cat we're talking about.
Is it Manekineko, a Japanese traditional symbol of commerce? Or is it Hello Kitty, one of the Sanrio characters? Since neither Hello Kitty nor Manekineko is present in the photograph, the case for 猫 as the first character on the right is further weakened.
All right. Let's take stock of where we are now. We have made some progress in deciphering the four kanji on this Russian sushi stand, but we by no means have arrived at a definitive understanding.
Time to call in the experts.
I asked a number of colleagues who are learned in Chinese and Japanese to try their hand at explicating this mystifying phrase. Here are some of the replies I received:
Neither 描磨福寿 nor 猫磨福寿 makes much sense. Whether it is a drawing-inkstone or a cat-inkstone, I don't think it combines well with good luck and happiness.
I am not sure if it is "猫磨福寿" or "描磨福寿". And I guess the most obvious explanation is that "猫磨福寿“ is a name for a person or the restaurant. However, I cannot be sure because I am not familiar with the Japanese context.
If it is 描 (to retouch), perhaps it means happiness and longevity that come from retouching and grinding.
It is more likely that it is actually 描摩 instead of 描磨. 磨 here is a 别字 [VHM: miswriting] for 摩. Then 福寿 would refer to 福寿纹, a decorative motif commonly seen on traditional Chinese artifacts such as porcelain ware. 描摩 means to depict and to draw. So the phrase as a whole means to draw the pattern of happiness and longevity. The character itself looks like 描 and there is no cat decoration in this restaurant, at least not in this photograph.
This really beats me. I have no idea why these four characters are put together. A wild guess is "寿福" sounds like "chef" in English and maybe "磨猫" sounds like the Japanese name of the chef?
I have never seen this Kanji phrase in Japanese． But, with the image of 猫, what comes up in my mind is 招き猫（manekineko). It could be 猫の達磨＝猫磨 inviting fortune (?). I am just guessing.
I'm sure it must have been intended as 猫磨福寿. I didn't know that "petting the cat leads to good fortune and longevity," assuming that this is the message, and have no idea how this relates to sushi.
A Russian friend suggested the following: many itamae (sushi "chefs") in Russia are Uzbeks (i.e., not Sinospheric, i.e., it's not their fault). The signs are designed by Russian designers who have heard hanzi rumors from Chinese, so this isn't surprising…. It's probably machine translation of something like "When the cat cleans, your marriage will be happy."
I asked whether this was some sort of Russian proverb. Sadly, no.
Most likely, the characters just looked cool.
Several Russian colleagues who know Chinese, Japanese, and English well just threw up their hands and said things like "I guess it may be just a meaningless set of characters. It's fashionable now to have decorations with characters, especially in restaurants serving East Asian food."
[Thanks to Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Frank Chance, Nathan Hopson, Hiroko Sherry, Jing Wen, Melvin Lee, Fangyi Cheng, Tanya Storch, and Rostislav Berezkin]