Video Game Japanese 101: Know Your Street Fighter
Everyone’s heard of Street Fighter. OK – not everyone. But pretty close. Chances are you’ve spent some time lobbing fireballs at your friends, whether it be in light-hearted competition or a serious grudge match. You’ve probably heard Ken and Ryu’s emphatic cry of “Hadouken!” so many times that it’s become nothing more a three-syllable representation of a zooming blue projectile. But, how often have you stopped to think, “hey, that’s actually a Japanese word… I wonder what it means?”
About two years ago, I had this epiphany. At the time I was living and working in Japan. I was strolling with a buddy through the city in which I worked, searching in vain for a regular ol’ pub in a town full of hostess bars. We were just about to call it a night when we noticed a group of high school students across the street. They were hard to miss since they were gawking and waving. The appropriate response would probably have been a head nod and a wave, or perhaps just a courteous, “hello!” However, after living in Japan for several years and receiving this kind of random, overenthusiastic interest on a daily basis, sometimes a regular greeting just isn’t snarky enough. With a decidedly sassy gleam in his eye, my buddy turned toward the students and thrust his palms in their direction. “Hadouken!” he exclaimed. After a split-second pause, the student nearest us dramatically threw his hands up in the air, staggered backwards, and then fell down. Everyone laughed. My friend did a quick bicep pose, then we both walked away.
Besides being totally awesome, this little exchange was thought-provoking – how could I, someone who loved Street Fighter and used Japanese on a daily basis, not even know what the word ‘hadouken’ meant? It was a flaw I quickly looked to remedy. That night I looked up the kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese writing) for hadouken and many of the other common Japanese Street Fighter move names. Now, I’m going to pass that information along to you. Be warned, though – it won’t make you a better Street Fighter player, nor will it significantly improve your conversational Japanese. It will, however, give you a better appreciation for the elegance and reasoning behind such move names as Hadouken, Shouryuken, and Tatsumakisempuukyaku. And, hey, you might even learn a kanji or two in the process, right?
Oh, and before I get any further – if you are using Windows and are having issues viewing any of the kanji characters in this article, you probably need to install the Eastern Asia Languages Pack. Windows 7 and Vista users shouldn’t have any problems, as this language pack comes pre-installed. Mac users should also be fine. If you are using some other OS or just need more information, check out this Wikipedia link; it should point you in the right direction.
Now, on to the lesson!
波動拳 – Hadouken
Might as well start here, right? This is a big one – the down-down/forward-forward to punch “fireball” move that even Street Fighter novices can pull off consistently. It’s one of the defining moves of Capcom’s beloved franchise and the trademark projectile for Ken, Ryu, and Sakura. It’s also one of the easier moves to translate. So, let’s break it down. The first two kanji, 波動, are pronounced ‘hadou,’ which translates to ‘surge.’ The third character, 拳, is pronounced ‘ken’ and means ‘fist.’ Put ‘surge’ and ‘fist’ together, and you have Surging Fist – essentially a punch that surges outward from the body and strikes the opponent from afar. It should be noted that the 拳 (ken) kanji pops up quite a few times in other Street Fighter moves, and can even be found in the title of Namco’s famous fighting game, Tekken – literally 鉄 (te) and 拳 (ken), or ‘iron’ and ‘fist’ (‘te’ is an abbreviation of the standalone 鉄 reading of ‘tetsu’). Hey, they don’t call it the King of Iron Fist Tournament for nothing, right?
真空波動拳 – Shinkuhadouken
As you can probably tell, this move is closely related to the Hadouken. In most Street Fighter games, it’s the Super Special (or whatever they decide to call it in that particular game) that Ryu pulls off. It’s generally a beefed up version of the Hadouken, seen usually as an extra large projectile or even a massive blue beam that causes big-time damage. Looking at the kanji, we can see that the last three characters, 波動拳, represent ‘hadouken,’ or Surging Fist. Easy. Now, the first two characters are a bit trickier. Together, the 真空 kanji are pronounced ‘shinku,’ which translates to ‘vacuum’ or ’empty.’ So, all together we have Vacuum Surging Fist – or a punch that draws forth power from nothingness before surging forward and striking the enemy. On a side note, Sakura has also been known to use this move (she is a student of Ryu’s techniques, after all), and her guttural cry of “Shinku…..HADOUKEN!” is certainly one of the more memorable quotations from the Street Fighter series.
気功拳 – Kikouken
Capcom gave this projectile move to Chun-li in Street Fighter II Turbo to give her some greatly needed zoning (keeping the opponent at a distance where you can attack them, but they can’t easily attack you) capabilities. Usually traveling a shorter distance than Ken or Ryu’s Hadouken, a Kikouken used to be pulled off by inputting a half circle command, though it has more recently been changed to a charge technique (similar to Guile’s Sonic Boom). Looking at the kanji, once again the last character here is 拳 (ken) or ‘fist.’ The first two characters, 気功, are pronounced ‘kikou,’ which roughly translates to ‘spirit cultivation’ or, more specifically the practice of Chinese qigong (pronounced ‘chee gung’) – the art of channeling one’s inner life force, or ‘chi.’ Any kind of literal English translation of this would be unwieldy – something like Inner Life Force Cultivation Fist or Spirit Cultivation Fist, so let’s just go with Qigong Fist. This translation jives better with Chun-li’s Chinese background, and vividly paints the move as a strike which draws its power from the careful cultivation of one’s inner chi.
気功掌 – Kikoushou
Another Chun-li exclusive. Like the Shinkuhadouken, this technique is a more powerful version of a standard projectile move (although the Kikoushou itself is not a true projectile, per se). It’s almost always represented by a large, stationary blue orb that can catch and “hold” opponents midair while doing rapid-fire damage. Most recently, Capcom has added this move to Super Street Fighter IV as Chun-li’s second Ultra Combo. Looking at the kanji, we see that the first two characters, 気功, once again represent ‘kikou,’ or Chinese qigong. For the third character, instead of 拳, or ‘fist,’ we have 掌, which is pronounced ‘shou’ and means ‘palm.’ Meshing well with the Chinese kung fu idea that “open palm” techniques can be even more deadly than “closed fist” ones, this Qigong Palm move is relatively easy to execute and quite deadly when timed correctly.
昇龍拳 – Shouryuken
Ah, the Dragon Punch – probably the second most recognizable move in Street Fighter after the Hadouken. It’s also one of the few moves whose official English name matches the kanji translation quite closely. Breaking down the Japanese, we see that the last character is the now familiar 拳 (ken), or ‘fist’ (I told you it’d pop up quite a bit). The preceding two kanji are new ones. The first, 昇, is pronounced ‘shou,’ and means ‘to rise,’ and the second, 龍 (ryu), is the Japanese character for ‘dragon.’ So, altogether we have, Rising Dragon Fist – a name with just a touch more elegance than the official Dragon Punch translation. On a side note, you should probably take the time to memorize 龍 (ryu), as it’s a fairly common game-related kanji. For example, it can be found in 龍が如く (‘Ryu ga Gotoku’ – roughly translated to ‘Like a Dragon’), the Japanese title for Sega’s Yakuza series, and in the original name for Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden – 忍者龍剣伝 (‘Ninja Ryukenden,’ or ‘Legend of the Ninja Dragon Blade’).
昇龍裂破 – Shouryureppa
This move is to a Shouryuken as Shinkuhadouken is to a Hadouken (say that three times fast). Essentially, it’s Ken’s Super version of the Rising Dragon Fist. It’s usually represented by a few quick uppercuts in a row, followed by a final, massive Shouryuken that does significant damage and sends opponents flying. Taking a look at the kanji, we see that the first two characters, 昇龍 (‘shouryu’ or Rising Dragon), are the same first two characters from Shouryuken. The final two, 裂破, are pronounced ‘reppa’ – a combination of the two readings, ‘retsu’ and ‘ha’ – and represent a merger between ‘rend’ or ‘tear,’ and ‘destroy.’ Put it all together and we have Rising Dragon Rending Destruction – a slightly overlong, yet fittingly lethal-sounding name for one of the Street Fighter universe’s most recognizable Super Combos.
咲桜拳 – Shououken
Here we have Sakura’s version of Ken and Ryu’s Shouryuken. With a much lower priority (it’s fairly easily countered), great horizontal range and the ability to strike the opponent multiple times, the Shououken requires a certain finesse to use successfully (something that Ken or Ryu converts frequently have problems with when first learning Sakura). Take a look at the last kanji character – 拳. Recognize it? Exactly, it’s ‘ken,’ or ‘fist’ – a character we’ve seen used over and over up to this point. The first two kanji, however, are unlike anything we’ve covered so far. The first, 咲, is pronounced ‘shou’ and means ‘bloom.’ The second character, 桜, has a few different readings, one of which is actually ‘sakura,’ or ‘cherry blossom’ (cool, eh?). The reading used in this compound is ‘ou’ – though the meaning stays the same. Put it all together and we have Blooming Cherry Blossom Fist – a perfect representation of the technique’s more graceful nature when compared to the powerful and direct Rising Dragon Fist.
竜巻旋風脚 – Tatsumakisenpuukyaku
The last of Ken and Ryu’s “big three” special attacks – this down-down/back-back to kick maneuver is commonly referred to in English as the Hurricane or Whirlwind Kick. Don’t be disheartened by the lengthy phonetic spelling and five-kanji Japanese name; the Tatsumakisenpuukyaku is actually not that hard to translate. Since these are all new kanji, let’s start at the beginning. The first two, 竜巻, form a compound and must be translated together. Pronounced ‘tatsumaki,’ these two characters represent ‘tornado.’ The next two kanji, 旋 and 風, mean ‘rotation’ and ‘wind,’ respectively. Together, they form another compound, ‘senpuu,’ that (as you can probably tell from their individual meanings) translates to ‘whirlwind.’ The last character, 脚 (kyaku), means ‘leg’ or, in this case, ‘kick,’ so altogether we have Tornado Whirlwind Kick. Interestingly, although variations of this move are used by characters such as Gouken and Akuma, among others, Ken and Ryu’s versions are the only ones referred to as Tatsumakisenpuukyaku.
春風脚 – Shunpuukyaku
Here we have Sakura’s version of the Tornado Whirlwind Kick. In Street Fighter IV, an EX Shunpuukyaku is noteworthy for its ability to launch opponents high into the air, opening the door for possible air juggles. Examining the kanji, we see that the last character is 脚 (kyaku), or ‘kick.’ The first two are actually very common kanji in general, and are definitely worth remembering if you have any interest in reading or writing Japanese. The first, 春, has a few readings, with the most common being ‘haru,’ or ‘spring’ (as in the season). The second kanji, 風, is usually read as ‘kaze,’ and (as we learned from translating Tatsumakisenpuukyaku) means ‘wind.’ Unfortunately, as with so many other kanji compounds, 春風 is read using each of the kanjis’ lesser known readings – ‘shun’ and ‘puu’ in this case – and translates to ‘spring breeze.’ Put all three kanji together and we have Spring Breeze Kick – another perfect move name for Sakura, especially considering that 桜 (sakura), or ‘cherry blossoms,’ always bloom during springtime.
百裂脚 – Hyakuretsukyaku
For this last translation we come back to fan-favorite Chun-li. Officially (mis)translated as Lightning Kick in English, the Hyakuretsukyaku is a rapid-fire kick attack and probably Chun-li’s most famous special. As you probably already noticed from the move’s title, the last kanji, 脚, once again represents ‘kyaku’ or ‘kick.’ The first character, 百, is another very important kanji and is usually pronounced ‘hyaku’ or the number ‘one-hundred.’ We actually already saw the middle character, 裂, before in Shouryureppa; it’s pronounced ‘retsu’ and means ‘rend.’ So, altogether we have One-Hundred Rending Kicks – a very Chinese kung fu-sounding name for a very Chinese kung fu-looking technique.
So there you have it – ten common Street Fighter moves broken down, kanji-by-kanji into their English translations. None of this information is a requirement for the enjoyment of Capcom’s iconic fighting game series, but knowing the original Japanese meanings does give you more of a, shall we say, refined appreciation for the special moves we all know and love. If this article sets off a spark and you’d like to get more involved studying kanji – then great! Deciphering, recognizing, and writing kanji is unquestionably challenging, yet extremely rewarding. If you are interested, then I recommend downloading a decent Japanese word processor (I use NJStar) and bookmarking Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC – hands-down the best Japanese dictionary you can find online. Hadouken!