The Nail That Sticks Up: Haikyu!! & the Power of Weirdos

Birds of a different feather flock together.

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You may have heard the somewhat gloomy Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” It works a lot like the English idiom “don’t rock the boat,” and can read like a threat against individuality. While it often gets over-used by us folks in the west as a way to (negatively and reductively) explain Japan’s cultural tendency to value the group over the individual, it’s still a useful phrase because it neatly summarizes the major downside of collectivism: If you don’t fit the mold, then you’re no longer welcome.

Haikyu!! is a show about volleyball. It’s a show about persistence and passion. It’s a show about friendship and teamwork. And now, after finishing its third season, we can add something else to that list. Haikyu is a show about defending the nails that stick up.

Here there be spoilers: Discussion about the finale for Haikyu Season 3 (Karasuno Vs. Shiratorizawa) below the jump.

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The struggle of the individual who doesn’t fit society’s rigid expectations has always been a part of Haikyu. Our protagonist, Hinata Shoyo, is a short kid who becomes a middle blocker (a position usually reserved for tall players) through a combination of hard work and natural ability. His team and coach are open-minded enough that he earns a spot on Karasuno’s team without much struggle, but his height comes up almost every time he faces a new opponent, and each time Hinata must prove their prejudices wrong.

There are other players on Karasuno and opposing teams who also deal with the negative aspects of collectivism, such as Yamaguchi, who’s bullied as a little kid. (Bullying isn’t necessarily a sign of “nail that sticks up” culture, but when it’s a group picking on a single kid as it was with Yamaguchi, it’s often because that individual is singled out as “weird” and therefore “deserving” of cruelty.) That said, Haikyu’s concerns with collectivism are, for a while, a background theme. They don’t become a central issue again until Karasuno faces Shiratorizawa in the prefectural finals.

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During key flashbacks, we learn that the two primary players on Shiratorizawa, Ushijima and Tendo, both dealt with discrimination because of their perceived differences. Ushijima’s family initially wanted to “fix” his left-handedness, and Tendo was an outcast at school, called a “monster” by others who refused to play with him.

Fortunately, Ushijima’s dad sees his left-handedness (or, as he says: “the fact that he’s different from other people”) as a potential strength, not a weakness, and steps in to defend him. Both Ushjima and Tendo later become welcome additions to Shiratorizawa’s team, where these tall poppies get to flourish. Both Karasuno and Shiratorizawa are strong teams not because their coaches stamp out differences, but because they nurture them, helping the players to work together and use their unique talents to achieve a common goal.

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Compare this to the short-lived volleyball career of Shiratorizawa’s coach, Washijo, who was written off because of his height. He didn’t fit the expected image of a volleyball player, and so he was relegated to the bench. Sadly, he’s not only never able to overcome those prejudices, but even internalizes them, coming to believe that “bigger will always be stronger.” While he’s undoubtedly helped players like Ushijima and Tendo, he’s still limited in what he thinks a good volleyball player is “supposed” to be, meaning he’s likely turned away other players in the process. Hinata is a nail he very much would have hammered down.

In narrative terms, Shiratorizawa pretty much can’t win this match, not just because it would make for a disappointing finale to a 10-episode-long heart-stopping nail-biter of a season, GOOD GOD (ah-hem), but also because it would go against one of Haikyu’s central ideals: That everyone has their own unique strengths, no matter how seemingly minor or unusual, and each is worth praising. Through Shiratorizawa’s defeat, Coach Washijo comes to realize this, too.

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That’s not to say Haikyu is a story lauding The Power of Individuality either, mind you. Shiratorizawa also over-relies on 2-3 players and sometimes struggles to communicate, while Karasuno—as this match constantly demonstrates—is very much a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

In one of the finale’s more striking scenes, two of Karasuno’s most integral players (Hinata and Tsukishima) feel as if they’re literally being crushed beneath Ushijima’s raw power…only to be helped, one by one, by the other members of the team as they too fight for victory. Everyone is important, but no one is alone.

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Haikyu, then, shows us the vital difference between collectivism and cooperation—between stifling individuality to benefit the majority, and encouraging individuality to benefit everyone. Karasuno’s strength doesn’t come just from fostering individuality or just from fostering teamwork, but from a combination of both: Unique individuals made stronger by the support of the unique individuals around them.

The nails are all in this together. Let them stick up at whatever height suits them best.

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