December 01, 2008


I've been confused about how ken gets used in certain words. One meaning of it is 剣 which means "sword". That one's used in 剣道 kendou which is, of course, the study of how to fight with a katana.

But 拳 is also pronounced ken and it means "fist". Alone, that isn't a word in Japanese but it's used in a lot of other things. For instance, it's used in 拳法 kenpou which is the name for a style of Chinese empty-hand fighting.

Reason I ran into this is that a lot of the weird techniques in DBZ include ken in their names, and they didn't involve swords. (The only sword in the series belongs to Yajirobe.)

Based on usage, I had come to the conclusion that ken also meant "technique", but if there's any such reading of it, I sure haven't found it. (jutsu certainly means "technique" but that's different.)

I'm still not clear on what "ken" is involved in the technique called tayoken, which results in a brilliant light that permits the user to escape. It's something Tenshinhan developed, but Goku and Krillin both know it, too. In DBZ we see Krillin use it three times and Goku once. The English translation was "Solar Flare", but since it doesn't include either a fist or a sword, I'm not clear on what it was supposed to be.

Anyway, in Ranma 1/2, I presume that neko ken is probably the "fist" reading. Does that seem right?

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Japanese at 11:57 PM | Comments (8) | Add Comment
Post contains 247 words, total size 1 kb.

1 I'm not a linguist, but it seems to me that a lot of Japanese words are derived from Chinese -- not just the kanji, but also the pronunciation.  But since the Japanese syllabary is less varied than Chinese, a lot of borrowed words ended up being homonyms -- 'sword' and 'fist' being among them.  (In Cantonese, 'sword' and 'fist' are 'keun' and 'gim', respectively, which are similar to 'ken'.  And the characters used in both languages are of course the same.  For other examples, the Japanese word 'tou' (blade/knife) is 'dou' in Cantonese, and 'sekai' (world) is 'sai gai'.  (I use Cantonese here because scholars seem to agree that it's most similar to ancient Chinese.))

Anyway, to address the question in your post, the Chinese and Japanese (can't speak for Koreans) often suffix the names of fighting styles and techniques with the word 'fist'.  E.g., 'juei keun' (drunken boxing) is literally 'drunken fist', and the 'quan' in 'tai chi quan' also means 'fist'.  In many cases, 'fist' is better translated as 'attack' or 'technique' or 'style'.

Basically, if it's a martial arts technique that ends in 'ken', it's probably 'fist'.

Posted by: ambulatorybird at December 02, 2008 04:31 AM (XLOjF)

2 Whoops, that's 'gim' for sword, and 'keun' for fist.

Posted by: ambulatorybird at December 02, 2008 04:39 AM (XLOjF)

3 The correct usage for Ken is as a proper noun generally preceded by respectful or adorative adjectives.It can also be used as a synonym for sage, role model and "master" (but this latter only by particularly Moe catgirls so this usage is regretfully rather limited).

I hope this helps.

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at December 02, 2008 01:45 PM (HaZVx)

4 In your dreams...

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at December 02, 2008 01:58 PM (+rSRq)

5 You're probably right about neko-ken.  (Didn't they translate it as Cat-Fu?  That was inspired.)

Another memorable one is from Harumi in episode 19 of Shingu.

By the way, a belated thank you for recommending Shingu.  It's one of the few series that I've ever gotten my wife sucked into along with me.

Posted by: Griffin at December 02, 2008 04:11 PM (i7NhU)

6 拳 (ken) by itself can be a word meaning any sort of hand game like rock paper scissors.

Solar Fist is a possible translation of Taiyouken.  Here are some examples:
猿拳 - Saruken / Monkey Style Kungfu
少林拳 - Shourinken / Shaolin Kungfu
螳螂拳 - Tourouken / Praying Mantis Style
虎燕拳 - Koenken / Tiger Swallow Fist
酔拳 - Suiken / Drunken Fist
五形拳 - Gokeiken / Five Form Fist
八極拳 - Hakkyokuken / Eight Extremities Fist

And just for fun, all these characters can be read as "ken":

Posted by: Mikan at December 03, 2008 06:10 AM (1aOo2)

7 One small point:  didn't Trunks have a sword in DBZ?  (Could be wrong on this - it's been afew years since I've seen it).

Posted by: Tex Lovera at December 05, 2008 05:11 PM (cx4rG)


Yeah, Trunks had a sword. He used it to kill Frieza, and to test Goku. It eventually got broken when he tried to use it on the androids.

Interestingly, it was a long sword, European style, double-edged. It wasn't a Japanese style blade.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at December 05, 2008 05:45 PM (+rSRq)

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