If You Fall, Pick Yourself Back Up

Okiagari Doll On Hokusai Puzzle

When I face something difficult, or have a setback, I often think of this Japanese saying:

七転び八起き (nana korobi ya oki) 

It literally means, “Fall seven times, rise eight.” There are various phrases in English that explain this nicely, but my favorite idiom is, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my first homestay family taught me this very lesson via a tiny doll. 

I was 17 and living in Japan for the first time. I had zero clue about what was happening around me because I understood only a few basic phrases. Although my homestay family was adorable and sweet, they were still people I didn’t really know, so I guess I was wary of lots of things. I hadn’t had much Japanese food before arriving, so constantly trying new dishes might have exhausted me. Riding a bike to school up a mountain in a skirted uniform was a totally different commute compared to my car ride to school back home. Not having any friends at school and not even understanding what the heck I was doing there was also a little unnerving. I missed home like crazy, and could only talk with my parents on Sunday evenings in that pre-internet era of no Skype, smart phones or social media. On top of it, I was a little stressed out about college applications, and remember having to use an electric typewriter in the evenings to type out my college applications (yes, I’m dating myself!). (Read more about how I got to Japan at age 17 here.)

So I guess you could say I was a little down.

My host family must have noticed that I wasn’t myself. I’ve been told that I have a very expressive face, so perhaps they saw that I was quite sad. 

One day, they sat down in front of me and put a little doll on the table. Don’t forget, I didn’t understand Japanese, and they could speak very little English. However, for this “conversation,” they didn’t really need to speak. They just pointed to the paper doll, exaggerated the movement of pushing it down so that it fell, and then we all saw how the doll righted itself back up. 

It took a few moments to realize that it had a little weight at the bottom that helped it jump right back up.

It took a few more moments for the meaning to kick in, and to be honest, I’m surprised that my 17-year-old brain picked up on it so quickly. If I fall or get pushed down, I will always get right back up. I remember feeling tears well up in my eyes, and hugged my host family for that little life lesson. 

I have had that doll since 1995, and it has been to every country with me. The face is barely unrecognizable because my dog, Mickey, once stole it from me. I’ve also lent that doll to friends who were struggling with something so that they, too, could be reminded that they will always get back up if they fall. I have it on my desk so that I can see it every day as I go through my current entrepreneurial journey. The picture you see here is not an Instagram-worthy shot, but it reflects the real beauty of that meaning in its old and faded way.

I often looked for these dolls in Japan, but couldn’t find them. One time I went souvenir-shopping in Asakusa, a touristy town in Tokyo famous for the Sensoji Temple. The long path that leads to the temple is basically an open market, and you can buy any kind of Japanese gift imaginable. There I found the same dolls (but much tinier – under an inch tall) and remember buying all of them (about 50) to give to my closest friends. I wanted to share that same life lesson with them, and I often wonder if my friends still have their dolls. 

These dolls are called 起き上がり小法師 (oki agari koboshi) and the Japanese word literally means “to get back up.” According to Wikipedia, “Okiagari-koboshi is considered a good-luck charm and a symbol of perseverance and resilience.”

So what’s the moral of the story? We all fall down via our daily struggles, problems, disappointments, losses, mistakes and embarrassments. The key is to not stay down, and to keep picking yourself back up each and every time. And there will be many, many times – that’s life, after all! The doll is a reminder that you CAN get back up. 

What kind of struggles have you had where you felt like you couldn’t get back up again? But you did get back up, didn’t you? 🙂

Let me know below or on social media via my links in the footer! 

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