Taichi is undoubtedly one of the most popular characters of the Chihayafuru series. Aside from his karuta skills, he loves Chihaya loyally and passionately since the beginning, and despite his tensions with Arata, he remains friends with the latter. He is kind to most people he meets, and is a charismatic leader to his club. He is also drawn very handsomely, which is always an added bonus.
While these traits certainly helped his popularity, his character reaches others in a far more complex way than the typical “handsome boy loyally in love” usually would. This third season makes that increasingly apparent. For beneath all his handsome looks, his charismatic attitude, and his intelligence, lies something that defines Taichi’s character and personality far more: his low self-esteem.
I started Chihayafuru as a teenager, and, while I always chalked up my favoritism towards Taichi to his undying love for Chihaya and his good looks, there was clearly something more that explained why I was drawn to his character, even though I couldn’t put my finger on it. I had to go through college to realize exactly why Taichi had called out to me so much. After all, it was there that I finally gained confidence in my abilities and my own personality. Before that, however, when I first started this series, I was at the height of my own self-esteem issues.
I grew up in a competitive Chinese community where parents compared teaching methods every day. Most importantly, they talked about their children’s accomplishments — best in the state for an instrument, best in the state for math, straight A’s for all four years of high school, practically a perfect score for every SAT taken, etc. Anything that could be chalked up as something to write down on a college resume, they discussed at length. I heard all of these discussions.
I lagged behind all of the other kids. I did not score the highest in class, I struggled getting into a special higher education program, and the only thing I really had going for me was writing, though it didn’t result in any published novels as a teenager. I learned to swim and play the violin simply because I enjoyed them and not as an attempt to boost my resume. At the time when Chinese parents began to talk about accomplishments for college, I basically had none to speak of.
I opened up about my self-esteem to a few close friends who only reacted in confusion. However, after going to college for two years, I looked back in retrospect and realized that I understood why my friends felt confused. After all, I wasn’t completely incompetent like I made myself out to be. Though my violin began as a hobby, I became concertmaster in high school and entered the competitive region orchestra competition every year without fail. My violin-playing consistently earned Outstanding Performance, the highest and hardest score to earn during the ensemble competition. My grades, though not straight As, landed me in the top 5% of the school, and I performed well on all my college credit exams. I got into an honors program in college that I applied to, and I had many good friends and even became close to two of my teachers on a personal level. As an adult looking back at my younger self, it made no sense for me to have felt so useless and dumb in high school.
Yet, that extreme feeling of inadequacy was far stronger than anything else I’ve felt in high school. That inadequacy is exactly what plagues Taichi, which we see come out full force in this third season.
Due to the increased focus on Taichi’s point of view rather than Chihaya’s, the audience becomes privy to many of his personal thoughts. Through this, it becomes clear that he suffers from crippling low self-esteem. He also feels lonely because no one seems to notice and help him with his self-image.
From the outside, even through the eyes of his closest friends, there’s nothing that he should feel incompetent about. He learns karuta skills with ease. He works hard. He’s popular in school. He’s top of the class. His family is well off. He has close friends who admire and love him. And yet, his feeling of inadequacy is so strong that he’s incapable of ever truly loving karuta. Next to Chihaya who picked up karuta without any formal training, he only sees his lack of talent and doesn’t notice how his analytical mind makes him a force to be reckoned with. Next to Arata who is formally trained and believes he can truly be a karuta king, Taichi is only reminded of how much his love for karuta is simply a hobby and a means to stay close to Chihaya now, on top of knowing that Chihaya’s respect and longing for Arata overshadows her feelings of him. It’s a double-edged sword that tells Taichi that not only he lacks in “destiny” with the sport but that he matters less overall to a girl he’s in love with.
Despite being his two closest friends, Chihaya and Arata are completely unaware of this issue and tend to say or do things that only pushes his self-confidence even lower than it already was, which hurts him even more. Taichi’s family also doesn’t help as his mother strives to have him compete and reach perfection with his grades. At home, he has no break from a constant force that keeps his self-esteem low, but even at school with his friends, he doesn’t get a reprieve either.
By the time Taichi reaches one of his lowest points in this season, Chihaya finally senses that something has gone awry. However, even after the realization, she does not have the slightest idea why, due to the fact that Taichi hides his insecurities so well, and that there’s absolutely no evidence going on around him that would point to self-esteem issues. His accomplishments in life wouldn’t ever lead anyone to suspect that this talented karuta player might be grappling with terrible confidence. Sadly enough, his closest friends and family members become just as emotionally removed from the situation as any outsider, which makes it all the more difficult to accept.
These illustrations of self-esteem issues are why I respect the way the series had written Taichi’s character. Too often, stories like to portray people with self confidence issues the same way: withdrawn personalities, hiding behind a curtain of long hair, sitting in a corner, and always apologizing. While I am certainly not arguing that these people don’t exist, I don’t think it accurately portrays the majority of people who also struggle with self-confidence. Often not, people lacking self-confidence can easily blend in with their friend group, have accomplished much in their lives, and never give the slightest hint they’re struggling with themselves. A high school classmate whom I got closer to in college later revealed that she actually struggles with body image issues. Every morning, she looks in the mirror and she thinks her skin looks bad, her waist seems big, and her eyes are crooked. Yet, she’s a girl who constantly gets complimented for her looks, for scoring high grades without having to study too hard, and for socializing easily.
Taichi brings a level of realism to self-esteem that I don’t see in other anime characters. He’s not the withdrawn character who is intimidating, has little friends, but a heart of a gold. Instead, Taichi is the guy that girls want to date and that guys want to be. Yet he thinks of himself lower than any of the people around him. He fails to see his own accomplishments because he’s only painfully aware of what he lacks and what other people do better.
It hurts the audience to see him think of himself that way, but I think it also resonates in the audience because many viewers likely understand his feelings of inadequacy. It takes the form of constant self-doubt that echoes in your mind while you smile and enjoy your time with friends.
Due to this focus, this third season has elevated Taichi beyond just a character vying for Chihaya’s affections. This season reveals how complex and human his pursuit of karuta and Chihaya makes him, and in that sense, a protagonist in his own right.
And for that, I am grateful.