2X Japanese LEGENDS
In order to make this list we picked those players who have taken their characters to the highest level and that are held in the highest regard by their Japanese peers. They are also known as the most successful in tournaments with their characters at some point or another in the history of the game.
Ryu is the most used character in the game. ShootingD has been repeatedly referred as the best Ryu who has played the game. In the same way, Daigo is also one of the most respected Ryus by all the current grandmasters specially when he had some more dedication to the game in the early days. None of these two players are currently active although both of them have been seen in 2015 for different reasons. In the past 10 years the most notable Ryus have been Sashishi, Futachan, Sasori and Kurahashi. You can see three of them going at each other in this long exhibition set. Futachan, also known for being a specialist against Claw, is teaming up with MAO and Ito in team tournaments. Other strong Ryus from the earlier days to the present are Inoki (aka Inoki is back), Umechin, Shiro, Gotoh, Tencho, Mayumura (with old Ryu), tomo and Kawamata.
There is a historical rivalry between Kansai and Kanto areas in Japan similar to the east vs west coasts in the US. It's no surprise that, as with many other characters, the two top grandmasters with Ken are Aniken from Kansai and Mattsun from Kanto. According to Mattsun, Aniken is more consistent with his game using strategies more typical of Ryu whereas Mattsun uses more fancy tricks and risky mixups. Other top Kens in Japan are Shigaken, Yoshimi, Choshu, Chojin, Noguchan, Hammer (old Ken), PECO (old Ken), Shu and Kameraya. Kameraya is known for having the best sweep game in the scene.
Shogatsu is probably one of the OGs in Japan who has been around for the longest time and he is still very active playing at the highest level. He uses old Honda which makes him even a more particular case. Kusumondo being the other top grandmaster with Honda has gained a lot of recognition internationally due to his travels to US and Europe tournaments. Other strong Honda players are Hamaki (very old school player), Abebin, Nia, Roku, Nakamu, Wani! K, Kenta-kobe, Haru King, Chika@8doors, Piroshi and baby nine.
Otochun is widely considered by most Japanese as the best player ever. He is way ahead of any other Chun Lis and his accomplishments in tournaments speak for themselves. Nuki being one of the five gods of fighting games has a top Chun Li who has got the respect from everyone in the community. Keishin is probably the other strongest candidate of the recent years although not as popular outside of Japan. Other strong players are Akishima (old school), Prince, Fujinuma, Toukon, Tojo, Kita, Kusa, Chamu (female player) and Inro (also female player with old Chun). There are a couple of special cases like Jenety, a top Chun Li player that not only uses the old version of the character but also never uses Kikokens (Chun Li fireballs) during the game, and malure, an old school player who plays new Chun Li but never uses Kikokens either.
Komoda is one of those cases where a player takes his character to such a high level that it seems he plays a league of his own. AFO being a more relatively recent blanka grandmaster has become a reference for Blanka players too. Nakamu could arguably be in the spot #2 of the Blanka list but unlike the previous players he divided his dedication between Blanka and Honda. Akabla is also one of the current strong Blankas. Some other top players are Ikuradon (very old school), Akashachi Kancho, Asteka, Koike (aka T. Akiba), Seppei and Nero.
Historically, the two top Zangief players in tournaments are Gunze and Pony, from Kansai and Kanto respectively. Each of them are capable of beasting in tournaments with insane performances and OCVing teams with unfavorable matchups they are not supposed to be winning. Zangief happens to have some old school legends in Japan outside of competition like Rikiya who stopped playing the game in 2000 with no available videos of him and Mayakon Zangief who has been praised by many players in the community. The ones who have been brave enough to play Zangief in tournaments are Awase (old school), Atomic Boy (Toutanki Hawk is the same player), Saitou, Cello Tape, Kakky, Aoki Cyclone, Gakuzan, Nogyo and TMF.
For many years, the main character of Kurahashi has been Ryu but in the very early days he mained Guile and he was the first Japanese player that was praised in the US after the famous match between Kurahashi and John Choi (part of the Japan vs USA series of 2000). His Guile style is still admired, and missed, in the community. If we have to point out the best Guile in the game, everyone will agree on Muteki Guile. He has been ahead of everyone else for the last 15 years. Simply said, nobody else can do what he does with Guile. Some other top players with Guile as their main are Kotaka Shoten, Kikai, Suzuki, Kawabata (very old school player), Batayan, Yoshio (a very popular tournament commentator), the legendary TZW (popular by his combo videos), Teppei, Aniki and Tsunoppi.
The two best Dhalsims to ever play the game are Gian (aka Ken-O) and Hakase. Each of them with a very characteristic style which makes it so hard for everyone to pick their favorite. In terms of tournament results Gian has a slight advantage but Hakase is the one still active these days. Another Dhalsim who was probably at the highest level was Yoshimura Dhalsim who is now inactive. Few other names that have been in the scene since the early days are ShinDhalsim (one of the best Dhalsims ever from Kansai who Gian recognized as his master), Danjiri Dhalsim, Muu, Wassekun, TIO, BAT, KKY (probably the most active one in the last ten years) and more recently Kawasim.
When Japanese players are asked about the top Hawk players they all agree in one thing, Mayakon is the true all time legend. The respect for Mayakon from other Japanese players is spread by word of mouth. Sadly, video footage and his presence in tournaments is very limited. Toutanki was the most successful Hawk in tournaments during the 2000s (Japanese insist that the actual spelling of the name is Tontanki). Mayakon and Toutanki styles rely heavily in footsies and precise distance whereas modern Hawk players take the character's tech to a new level. Other strong players both from the past and the present are Inomata, K, Shin, Sako, Senbon, VIPER, Hiroyan and Yakitori.
Cammy is the worst character of the game. Even though it's not a very popular pick there are plenty of Japanese players who have mastered Cammy as their main like Sawada (strong old school player), Yabu, Isaji, Naka, Shacho, Oota and Minazuki. The player who made Cammy a real killer is Nakamura (aka Takechi), capable of things that no other Cammys can like beating 7 Ryus in a row. Choosing a number #2 is not easy but it seems that many Japanese players consider the old school Tasaka as a strong candidate for it. Tasaka is the only Cammy that has been present in a final stage of an X-Mania (X-Mania 7) and in a final of a Gian Recital tournament.
Noguchi was the most successful Fei Long in tournaments during the 2000s. He was several times in the top #3 in major tournaments and won both X-Mania IV and X-Mania VI. Sadly, he used alternate characters often and eventually changed his main to Claw. In the last years there has been an increasing number of players that raised the bar to the next level. Hanashi Fei Long has had more popularity recently due to his travels to X-Mania Europe and X-Mania USA. Koemon is also another Fei at a similar level. Okafei is the strongest Fei Long from Kansai, winner of SBO'11 which could be perfectly considered the #2 Fei Long of the recent years. However, all these players insist that Souzou Fei Long is at a higher level than everyone else although his participation in tournaments might be a little bit low. Cross, Yuubou, YURI, Tsumura and HAS are other top Fei Long players to watch. Bonus: Mirror match between Souzou and Okafei (minute 30:56).
Ito DJ is one of the strongest players in the game. MAO cleverly teams up with him in team tournaments which makes it a deadly combination. Seki is considered by many as the most succesful DJ after Ito. He was active in the scene just for a few years but his success in tournaments made him a legend. However, Fujimon DJ has been raising up the bar with his matchup knowledge and tournament success in the recent years and he could also be put on the top of the list at this point. In the early days players like Foosuke and Oh!!J were using DJ very successfuly whereas many other players have been using DJ as secondary character (Yuuvega for instance). Other strong players that have used it as their main are Kuni, Yuzuru and Itokazu.
Shiki is one of the OGs players in Japan who mained Guile at some point before staying with Boxer. Boxer fans talk about him as the finest boxer who has played the game. However, Tsuji (aka Jerome) boxer is one of the most successful players in the tournaments specially when he was more active in the late 2000s. Tamashima (aka Tama) who plays boxer since the early days is also one of the most successful boxers along with Shiki and Tsuji. Other beasts with boxer are Macky7, postman, The Superstar, MB, Numa, Nikaiten, USA, Shun, Naoki, ShinShin and Morrigan.
If you want one example where the disciple surpasses the master then this is one of them. ARG was the most successful Claw in tournaments during the 2000s. His student MAO not only learned the ground game from ARG but also added his own dirty wall dive mixups to his game to a level that is clearly abusive and hated in the community. Despite the complains about the character, the truth is that nobody else has been able to get so scary in tournaments like MAO who has also gained international popularity with his repeated success at EVO. Opemai could be easily considered the top #3 claw. Other strong claws are Noguchi, Holy Scarlet Bal, Kachu, Sensei (aka MORE Balrog, aka Sky High Claw), Aomori and Shin.
Probably one of the least popular characters in the game. Almost everyone outside of Japan uses the old version counterpart since it's a much stronger version of the character. Yaya, from Kanto, had the patience to stick with the character all these years and become the most popular player with Sagat. Yondaime, from Chubu (central area), is the other grandmaster considered by many to have a better edge against top tiers than Yaya. Other Sagats in Japan are Muneo (old Sagat), Akeome, Munari, Guts and Hammer.
Emperor Yuuvega has been reigning with Dictator since the early days and is definitely one of the strongest players in the history of the game. Taira dictator is another player who came to the scene around the mid 2000s. For a period of time Taira took dictator execution to a new level and even surpassed Yuuvega in some aspects. Sadly, he became inactive around 2012 and only shows up at big events since then. Other strong dictators are Murasaki, Oonishi, MoreVega, Kimomaru, Milky, Head Press Oomura, ryu and Tomoza.