The Truth Behind Daruma Dolls and Why You Should Get One

It’s a new year and, like every year, people are making resolutions to lose weight, quit smoking, take up a new hobby or whatever. However, how many times have we actually fulfilled a New Years Resolution? 

5,000 miles away in Japan, they have a solution for kick-starting motivation and getting jobs done, and it comes in the form of a red doll with white eyes and a beard. 

Sounds a bit creepy but its the Daruma doll. 

Blue hydrangea in Kamakura

A Discovery in Kamakura

The first time I saw a Daruma doll, was in Kamakura, a seaside city South of Tokyo. The air was hot, damp on the back of my neck, as I walked the steep roads of the quiet town; wooden houses and blooming, blue hydrangeas lining my horizon. As I turned a corner, I noticed one small building with its doors and windows wide open, small glass trinkets and windchimes hanging from their frames. They sparkled and sung in the humid air amongst over souvenirs and Japanese gifts from within the shop. As I stopped to ogle at the red and gold wares, the elderly shopkeeper, a woman with kind eyes, greeted me and encouraged me to come inside. Before I could reply, she had already begun pushing me into the shop, forcing me into a treasure trove of figurines, keychains, fans, masks and sweets. 

‘Where you from?’ She asked. 

‘England,’ I replied and she laughed.

Her smile, toothy and open, spread wide across her wrinkled and tanned face as she guided me around the shop. She continued to giggle and initiate small talk whilst stopping occasionally to offer me a katana keyring or a paper fan. I would refuse each time and the small, hunched woman in front of me would chuckle and wave her hand as if to say, ‘I didn’t get you this time.’ 

But then, she showed me a shelf full of round figures with white eyes and decorated faces. They intrigued me and, as I leaned in to try to figure out the meaning behind those strange designs, I felt the old shopkeeper hold her breath. 

I took one in my hand. 

It was light, made from paper mache, and painted with red, black and gold varnish. It shimmered as I inspected it, turning it to and fro in the gentle sunlight that came in through the open windows. Unknown kanji was written on the front and its blank face, sporting a mustache, triggered a sense of curiosity and unease. 

‘Daruma doll,’ the shopkeeper chimed up. ‘Japanese tradition.’

I turned to her, nodded and turned back to the doll as if I understood a little more but I did not. It certainly was traditionally Japanese in terms of design but what was it? Why did it have no eyes? 

The woman offered me an answer but not to any of my questions, ‘700 yen’. 

I bought the Daruma, thinking it would make a nice souvenir for someone but, when I finally discovered the truth behind that bearded face, I realised it was far more than a toy. 

It was a vessel for motivation and growth. 

View of Kamakura harbor

What Daruma dolls are for

Daruma dolls are traditional Japanese dolls, modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, and are symbols of perseverance and good luck. They are painted red to resemble monk robes and have a beard similar to the founder himself. However, there is more to them than looks.

The eyes are blank intentionally. The owner of the doll is the person who draws them in but over time. Firstly, you must think of something you really want to do, an aspiration or a dream. This can be anything from learning a language to getting a promotion at work or finishing a project but, like the Daruma, where no two are the same, the dreams placed in the dolls are unique to the individual. Then, you draw the pupil for one eye and write your goal or dream on the back. 

It is only when you complete this task, you fill the other eye in. 

The doll is said to embody a “go for it!” spirit, as if it is silently cheering you on in the background, and is a symbol for the Japanese proverb: ‘nanakorobi yaoki’, meaning ‘fall down seven times, stand up eight’. The shape of the doll makes it unable to be knocked down and, as it sits there, one eye painted, it will always teach you to be the same as you pursue your goals. And, as you complete more Daruma over time, they become proof of how far you’ve come and all your successes on the way. 

It truly embodies the Japanese spirit of adversity.

Looking at my own Daruma now, I begin to fill in the left eye and write my aspiration on the back – to get my first JLPT (Japanese-Language Proficiency Test) certificate. I smile at it and turn it over in my hands, just like I did in that shop, and am grateful to that old woman, pushing me through that shop door. Without her, I would have never learned of this beautiful, motivating Japanese tradition and would have always commodified the Daruma as just a toy. 

I place it on my shelf as a reminder of my aspirations, knowing one day my Daumra will remind me of my success. 

If you had a one right now, what would you think of as you painted one eye? What New Years’ resolution would you write on the back?

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