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Culture Check: Jumbled Japanese in Overwatch Anniversary Skins

by Daley Wilhelm On the 23rd Overwatch celebrated its one-year anniversary and is inviting everyone to celebrate with the release of three new maps, now-viral dance emotes, and some snazzy new skins. We’ve lauded Overwatch before for their attention to detail and for lead writer Michael Chu’s dedication to diversity in the game’s lore and characters. Despite this, players have recently been pointing out some inaccuracies concerning Japanese writing in the game and in previous cinematics. Japanese has three alphabets, kanji in particular being the one adapted from Chinese characters. As someone who has been studying the language for many years, I can say it’s incredibly easy to mix up kanji meanings, since the meaning can change depending on the other kanji they are written with. There seems to have been something lost in translation when it comes to Hanzo’s new legendary skin.

“Hanzo, what is 'arrow sign?'"
This is what many Japanese players are asking about the very prominent but not exactly accurate kanji 矢印 (yajirushi) featured both on the strip of Hanzo’s quiver and on the bow itself. The “sign” part here literally translates as something that would be featured on a road or street sign. The single kanji 矢 (ya) would have sufficed for the obvious label of “arrow” because that’s what it translates to.
竜頭蛇尾 (ryoutoudabi)
This naturally reminded fans of the similar kanji blunder when the cinematic that explained Genji and Hanzo’s backstory released last year. The scroll at the altar before which Hanzo kneels to offer prayers to the late Genji features the kanji 竜頭蛇尾 (ryoutoudabi), which literally translates as “dragon head, snake tail” which fits the theme of the brothers being long, Japanese-style dragons in the fable. However, Japanese speakers recognized this as an idiom that means “anticlimax.” Something starts out magnificent like a dragon but becomes smaller and unimpressive like a snake. A quick dictionary check confirms the translation of “anticlimax.” It’s rather disappointing to see a mistake so easily recognizable by Japanese language speakers go unnoticed as production rolled out these features, especially since Overwatch usually does a good job of representing and exploring Japanese culture.

Subtle Details and Better Research in Skins

Genji’s newest legendary skin featuring a sleek green helmet and armor is a play on one of Japan’s most recognizable and oldest pop culture series: Super Sentai Series. Sentai translates as “lightning squadron” and is used to describe teams of superheroes in color-coded costumes who battle the monster of the week using mech-armor, usually with the power of hard work and friendship. The Power Rangers series are the Americanized version of Sentai, which has consistently kept up production and popularity since the 70’s. Another of Genji’s skins, the demon-masked Oni skin, gets kanji and culture right in a subtle detail on his twin swords, one used for defense and the other he uses to attack. The offensive sword on his back bears the kanji 村正 “Muramasa” the name of a real life 13th and 14th century swordsmith. The other defensive katana has the name 正宗 “Masamune” a rival swordsmith considered to be the greatest in Japanese history. This speaks to game designer’s attention to detail considering the legend behind these two names.
正宗 “Masamune”
Muramasa and Masamune had a contest to see who was truly the better craftsman. They each made a katana, brought it to the river and laid the blade in the stream, where various things caught against the sword. Muramasa’s blade cut leaves and fish right in half; whereas fish swam around and leaves remained intact when they hit Masamune’s blade. Muramasa declared himself the winner, saying the other had failed. A passing monk came forward and explained that he had seen the contest and interpreted Masamune as the winner. Masamune’s blade refused to cut the innocent while Muramasa’s blade was indiscriminate and blood-thirsty, cutting through anything in it’s path.
村正 “Muramasa”
There was clearly some research put into such a small detail. Overwatch’s development team does a generally good job of representing the cultures it features in game and playing up the folklore from those cultures. Anyone familiar with Japanese folklore instantly recognized the two Japanese heroes’ names: Hanzo comes from the famous ninja of the Sengoku era Hattori Hanzou, who was described as “Demon Hanzou” by his enemies. Genji is a reference to The Tale of Genji, the world’s first modern novel by Murasaki Shikibu. The book is about Hikaru Genji is a wandering, banished nobleman and his relationships with various women. According to some fans, his name origin explains Genji’s ambiguous relationship with Mercy. Shipping theorists aside, Japanese Twitter generally appreciates the two Japanese heroes. As a whole, I believe that Blizzard has done a good job appealing to the massive audience they have in Japan. That’s why it’s confusing why little slip ups in kanji were released without review from someone familiar with the language. Overwatch has the cultural callbacks down but needs to do some dictionary checks.