Fall down seven times, get up eight: The power of Japanese resilience
March 24, 2011
They say that in times of crisis people show their true character. Anyone can be cooperative, patient, and understanding when things are going well and life is good. But it is the noble man or woman who can behave with grace and compassion and even kindness when times are very, very bad. For many people in Northern Japan in 2011, times could not have been worse. And yet, at least to the outside observer, the manner in which the Japanese people conducted themselves in the aftermath of the calamity seemed remarkable. (NHK image: people receive bread at one the thousands of evacuation centers)
Foreign reporters are amazed
In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and devastating tsunami in northern Japan, we were inundated with news crews from around the world. Without exception, the foreign news reporters were impressed with the amazing resilience of the Japanese people. CNN's Anderson Cooper went on and on about how impressed he was at the cooperative nature of the Japanese in the disaster zones. He described how he saw people who had waited hours in long lines for water suddenly be told that the distribution center had just run out of supplies. He expected to hear complaining or worse (imagine how this may play out in your own country), but was shocked to see that no one complained, no one became angry or made an incident. Seemingly every media outlet abroad commented on this remarkable aspect of Japanese society. In an article from the Daily Telegraph in Australia (Resilience in the face of catastrophe) touched on many of the themes:
"...the country shows only co-operation between people, generosity, order, industriousness and civilised behavior. No looting, no whining. Very little panic, if any, and no demands for some mythical 'them' to fix it."
Over thirty years ago when I first started working in Japan, I noticed that transferring many people to different parts of he company was a common practice. It seemed disruptive and a bit of an upheaval to me then, but my boss explained that this kind of change was important for people to learn all aspects of the business. And besides, he said, this kind of tearing down and building up again is all apart of life in Japan. I remember he called it "construction and destruction...and then construction again." He reminded me that Japan is an island nation with a history of calamities including volcanoes, typhoons, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, and in recent history, the horrible consequences of war, including two atomic bombings. No matter the crisis, however, Japan always bounces back. This ability recover and grow stronger has much to do with a culture that values personal responsibility and hard work but also humility and a sense of belonging to and contributing to a community. Wa (和) or harmony, then, is a key value in Japanese society. One can indeed live a life in the pursuit of individual happiness and self-actualization while at the same time living a life that values being a part of a community and contributing to the society in which one lives. (NHK image: people line up patiently outside for bread.)
Fall down seven times,
get up eight 七転び八起き
Japanese culture and ways of thinking can not be adequately addressed in a short space, but this Japanese proverb reflects an important and shared ideal: "Nana korobi ya oki" (literally: seven falls, eight getting up) means fall down seven times and get up eight. This speaks to the Japanese concept of resilience. No matter how many times you get knocked down, you get up again. Even if you should fall one thousand times, you just keep getting up and trying again. You can see this ethic reinforced in all facets of Japanese culture including education, business, sports, the martial arts the Zen arts, etc. It is especially important to remember the sentiment expressed in this proverb when times are dark. There are no quick fixes in life and anything of real worth will necessarily take much struggle and perseverance. Success does not have to be fast—what’s more important is that one simply does their absolute best and remains persistent.
Never give up!
A concept related to the saying "Nana korobi ya oki" is the spirit of gambaru (頑張る). The concept of gambaru is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and approach to life. The literal meaning of gambaru expresses the idea of sticking with a task with tenacity until it is completed—of making a persistent effort until success is achieved. The imperative form, “gambette,” is used very often in daily language to encourage others to “do your best” in work, to “fight on!” and “never give up!” during a sporting event or studying for an exam. You do not always have to win, but you must never give up. While others may encourage you to "gambatte kudasai!" — the real spirit of gambaru comes from within. The best kind of motivation is intrinsic motivation. For the benefit of oneself — and for the benefit of others as well — one must bear down and do their best. Even in good times, behaving uncooperatively or in a rude manner is deeply frowned upon. In a crisis, the idea of complaining or acting selfishly to the detriment of those around you is the absolute worst thing a person can do. There is no sense in complaining about how things are or crying over what might have been. These feelings may be natural to some degree, but they are not productive for yourself or for others.
Lessons for us all?
Recently I was talking to a friend here in Japan who is originally from China. He remarked too how impressed he is with the Japanese people in times of crisis. "This is really a civilized place" he said to me. "There are some things the rest of the world can learn from Japan." I agree with my friend. Indeed, all my friends from outside of Japan have made similar observations over the years. Japan is above all a civilized society. No place is perfect and Japan is no exception; we certainly have our own problems here as well. But when it comes to peaceful coexistence and getting along with others, Japan is a very civilized place to live. (For more see: BBC: Why Are Japanese so Resilient?)
There is a holistic world view at work if you look at the way that the Japanese build their places of spiritual worship: Every shrine or temple is really an ephemeral concept that only enters the physical realm through constant rebuilding of the wooden structures. The physical is not what lasts, but rather the spiritual core is being rebuilt time after time. 和, I agree, might be the essential core to Japanese society. Unfortunately that means that other societies will need to rely on other core principles to draw upon when resilience is needed.
Posted by: Jakob | March 24, 2011 at 05:02 PM
Remarkable. I love everything from that nice country. Still ordering their prducts online. :) I won't be surprised for them to come up with a new wave of innovation in the near future.
Posted by: Katherine | March 24, 2011 at 06:25 PM
The Japanese seem to be not only persistent but also quick to gain knowledge from mistakes.
Even though the loss of life and property has been terrible, I suggest it would have been much worse without them implementing what they have learned from past failures.
Posted by: Mike | March 24, 2011 at 07:42 PM
Very informative post, Garr. We can learn from their tenacity!
Posted by: Mike Sporer | March 24, 2011 at 10:20 PM
Thank you Garr (and to the people of Japan). This is exactly the motivation I needed today.
Posted by: John Ritchie | March 25, 2011 at 10:38 PM
Great article, Garr. Those kind of article are subliminal.
Great comment, totally True.
"The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart."
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Posted by: Alex | March 25, 2011 at 11:52 PM
Posted by: Komik Oyunlar | March 26, 2011 at 08:24 PM
Thanks for this Post, Garr.
The whole world can learn from the way the Japanese are handling the worse of the worse of the worse.
Posted by: Fred E. Miller | March 27, 2011 at 09:54 AM
As bad as this news is, I'd still go back to live in Japan in a minute.
Posted by: Susan Kelly | March 27, 2011 at 11:24 AM
Greetings from India. I agree with this 100%
Posted by: Amrita from India | March 28, 2011 at 12:30 AM
Given their history of natural or man-made calamities and resilience if Japan can rise above this one (and I am sure they will) then they will be a learning as a nation for the world at large. Thanks for this wonderful post.
Posted by: Sindhu Raghavan | April 02, 2011 at 12:09 PM
Wonderful article. I truly appreciate having had the opportunity to live in Japan for some time. There is much that the rest of the world can learn from Japanese people.
Posted by: Alex Rascanu | April 04, 2011 at 04:47 AM
Sorry, but if you've fallen down 7 times, then you only need to get up 7 times - and you're already up. You can't get up an 8th time unless you fall down again.
So surely it should be "Fall down 7 times, get up 7 times".
Posted by: Donk | April 06, 2011 at 06:11 AM
I think you must be joking, but just in case you are not. This proverb -- like any proverb -- is poetic and is metaphor. (Not to mention the fact that this is an English translation.) No logical analysis is necessary or possible. Besides, what is inspiring about "fall seven, get up seven"? Nothing. The meaning of fall seven get up eight is simply to never give up, never give up, never give up no matter how many times you fall (fail). This proverb is one of my favorites and one of the most beautiful and inspiring for me in Japan. Remember that logic is only one way of looking at life, not the only way, nor is it the only form of intelligence. On the other hand, perhaps you were just joking :-)
Posted by: garr | April 06, 2011 at 11:04 AM
Actually, "Fall down seven times, get up eight" is accurate, because in order to have fallen the first time, a person would have had to get up a first time prior to falling. It's like the old saying, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Well, it was the egg. Why? Because through evolution, the chicken, that is, the adult, and the egg cycle, (egg grows into a chicken and the hen lays the egg, which grows into the adult and lays and egg....) the growing chicken cannot change it's own genes and chromosomes. That slight change will occur over time (evolutionary time)when the male and female copulate and the gene/chromosome combinations of the egg are slightly different from it's parents genes/chromosomes. That is, the adults that copulated were the evolutionary stage before the actual chicken stage as we know it, but of course, quite similar. Then, the egg will have exhibited the morphological characteristics of the chicken as we know it today.
Posted by: Fred Haney | May 12, 2016 at 12:22 PM