The expression roughly translates to: 7 times fall down, 8th time get back up, and it is a famous saying in Japan associated with the father of Zen Buddhism; called Daruma, the first monk from India to have brought the sect to China and Japan is otherwise known as Dharma.
Daruma is my favorite Japanese talisman because he is a symbol of perseverance, motivation, and good luck. He is commonly depicted in a round shape, perfectly representing the image of “rising again” and turning the expression into a literal symbol. The Daruma “tumbler” dolls that can be purchased in Japan are round and weighted so that even after being knocked over, will spring back into upright position. No matter how many times he falls or is pushed down, he will get back up. A very Japanese/Samurai mentality, Daruma and the expression 七転び八起き represents that fighting spirit of keep trying, and doing your best through adversity. Daruma is famously portrayed with no limbs, which stems from the legend that he mediated in a cave while staring at a wall for 9 years in zazen state, causing his arms and legs to fall off. This symbol of undying perseverance, concentration and mediation makes him an inspirational figure in difficult times.
He is also a symbol of motivation since Daruma dolls are always drawn “blind” to serve the owner in setting goals. When you have a goal, you draw in one eye – as in “eye on the prize” and when you have fulfilled that goal, you fill in the other so that he can see clearly, marking your achievement. With both eyes open, you have been enlightened (having fulfilled your goal), because you learned something in overcoming the obstacles to achieve your success, and newfound knowledge allows you to see things in a different light. I’m sure you have often seen his red, cloaked, round, paper-mached figure commercialized during New Years, a time when you reflect on goals of the past year and set new ones for the upcoming year. Takasaki, claimed to be the birthplace of Daruma dolls, holds a Daruma festival every January at the Shorinzan Daruma Temple in Gunma-ken.
In many famous sumi-e works, Daruma’s eyes have an angry expression, which I totally dig. To some, this hooded, bearded, frowning gaijin can seem quite frightening, but to me it’s so “badass,” as he has the image of a strong fighter. The shape of his scowling eyebrows is meant to represent the figure of a crane, while his moustache represents that of a turtle, both symbols of longevity in Asian culture. Because of his tough but positive image, I am pretty much obsessed with anything Daruma and own all sorts of Daruma paraphernalia. I also love giving Daruma dolls as gifts of encouragement and good luck. With it being April, a new school year, and for some of us, nearing the end of our JET experience, the image and concept of Daruma is important to help us reflect on what we have accomplished and what we want to achieve next. It’s a time where we need that new energy to prepare for new ichinensei classes, or for some of us who are burnt out, that last ignition of fire to complete the time we have left.
As a country and as individuals, the disaster in the Tohoku region put a lot of things in perspective. For those of us who are new, it’s a time to think about what you hope to gain out of your JET experience and to make sure you don’t lose sight of it in the craziness of living in a foreign country and culture. For those of us who are leaving this summer, it’s a time to reflect on our Japan journey and personal growth, did we accomplish everything we wanted to and if not, to plan and use our remaining time wisely to achieve it.
Life is filled with goals that we want to complete and it is so easy to get caught up in the frustrations of things not going according to plan or how we want them to. Whatever you rely on to help you get through in times of trouble, whether it be spirituality, friends, or family, while in Japan, get yourself a Daruma: it’s nice to have that menacing but encouraging figure to remind you to keep your hunger alive.