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Torakan Karate-Do

Karate Essence - Oss/Osu

Whether to Oss/Osu or Not Debate by T.D.McKinnon

Photo by Zoë Lake

There has been a rash of articles, of late, on the dojo/gym/studio term of Osu/Oss… While I agree, in part, with some portions of those articles I find myself disagreeing, for the most part, with much of what has been said on the subject; which has prompted me to write this article.

Table of Contents:

The dictionary meaning of Osu.

The etymology of Osu as it relates to the dojo use. 

The Professor Dr. Mizutani Osamu Theory of Osu. 

The Kyokushin Explanation of Osu. 

The Military Explanation. 

My Personal Understanding of Osu in Regard to Reiho. 

Respect is part of Reiho. 

The rights and wrongs of Osu. 

Osu is OK. 

Osu Should Not Be an Issue. 

Definitive Impasse.

Firstly, let us consult the dictionary meaning of the ‘word’ Osu…

To push, to press: 押す. To apply pressure from above, to press down: 押す, 圧す. To stamp (a passport) to apply a seal: 押す, 捺す. To press someone for something, to urge, to compel, to influence: 押す. To overwhelm, to overpower, to repress: 押す, 圧す. To push events along, to advance a plan: 押す. To do in spite of, to do even though, to force, to make sure: 押す. To be pressed for time: 押す. To advance troops, to attack: 押す.

These are not all of the listings; some dictionaries list more. As you can see it depends very much on the kanji for the actual meaning; however, the sound and pronunciation are the same in each case: Ohss! So, auditory, as a word, I would forward the proposition that you would know the meaning of the Osu being used by the contextual relevance of its use.

The Etymology of ‘Osu’ as it is Used in the Dojo

There are several theories on the origins of the term Osu within the martial arts; and I say the martial arts (not just Karate) because, not only is it a term used in Japanese Karate dojos, it is also used in Yoshinkan Aikido dojos, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu studios, and Mixed Martial Arts gyms, to name but a few that I personally know about.

The Professor Dr. Mizutani Osamu Theory of Osu:

A linguistics professor at the University of Nagoya, Dr. Mizutani Osamu, talks about an experiment with people in regard to ‘returning greetings.’ He concluded that ‘Osu’ might be a contraction of the more formal expression ‘Ohayo gozaimasu’, which is a very polite way of saying, ‘Good morning’. Dr. Mizutani postulates that ‘Osu’ is a rough expression used by men toward other men, and which means ‘Hey ya!’ in English. Even if he is correct; it is very debatable that it was this reasoning that was adopted into the dojo.

The Kyokushin Explanation of Osu:

Certainly, the Kyokushin practitioners take a very serious view of Osu. They use it loudly and often; firstly on entering the dojo and then, with enthusiasm, throughout their training session and, finally, before leaving the dojo. They will tell you that the word Osu is taken from the saying, ‘Osu no Seishin’, and that Osu is made up of two characters. The first character means to keep, or to maintain… the second character conveys the idea of Shinobu, patience: meaning ‘to persevere whilst being pushed, to endure.’

The Military Explanation:

In his article, Jesse Enkamp states: “According to history books, the expression ‘Osu!’ first appeared in the Officers Academy of the Imperial Japanese Navy, in the early 20th century.” And universities like Takushoku, with a military influence in their history, may well have influenced the use of the word that we now associate with the dojo term Osu. After all, in Japan, it would seem that martial and military would almost be synonymous.

My Personal Understanding of Osu in Regard to Reiho:

While I do not hold the same reverence for Osu as our Kyokushin brethren, it is certainly part of my understanding of Reiho (etiquette and respect).

I began my Karate journey in the early 70s, in Shotokan Karate, and from my understanding of the term Osu I hold it to mean: ‘I understand,’ also, ‘I will comply,’ as well as, ‘I agree,’ and or, ‘I will try my best.’ The meaning of Osu is contextual, and implicit in the delivery. There might also be other inferences from the term Osu, for instance: hello, goodbye, thank you, and more, depending on the context of the situation.

Respect is Part of Reiho

I have been hearing about this debate since my early days in Karate. My first instructor, Danny Bryceland Sensei, former British and European Kumite Champion and Chief Instructor of Lenbukan, told me that Osu was considered, in some circles, to be a low-class term. Danny Bryceland Sensei was a down-to-earth Glaswegian (from Glasgow, Scotland) kind of guy, with no airs and graces, and from him, I learned that Osu was a mark of respect.

From very early on in my dojo etiquette lessons, Osu was part and parcel of respect. We did not use Osu when entering or leaving the dojo (as in Kyokushin). We did, however, use Osu for various responses to the sensei. Certainly while in the presence of such eminent Karate masters as Bryceland Sensei, Kawazoe Sensei, Enoeda Sensei (R.I.P), Kanazawa Sensei (R.I.P), Kase Sensei (R.I.P), Nishiyama Sensei (R.I.P), Okazaki Sensei (R.I.P), and Sumi Sensei (to name but a few of the renowned masters I have had the honour of being in the presence of) I paid respect with Osu! I would say that pointedly contravenes Jesse Enkamp’s 'never use' situations advice. I would hasten to add here that Osu was not used excessively. I might also add that Hai was also used but not so much.

The Rights and Wrongs of Osu:

As for the rights and wrongs of the use of Osu; I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. It depends very much on which particular style of martial art you are involved with and which dojo. It would have to be said that Osu is not a term that is used in Karate styles with strong Okinawan links. Ironically, Okinawans frown upon the use of Osu and there is a kind of reverse snobbery involved; because, at one time, Japanese mainlanders, consider the people of the Ryukyu Islands (of which Okinawa is the largest) to be uncultured and coarse.

Although Shotokan’s founder, Gichin Funakoshi Sensei, came from Okinawa; Shotokan is basically a mainland Japanese Karate style and Shotokan practitioners, by degree, use Osu in the dojo. I say by degree because it really depends on your instructor to what degree it is used.

Osu is OK:

Having said that, I suppose that Jesse Enkamp does make one point that I agree with: Osu is a fairly handy, multifunctional term. However, just for a moment, let us replace Osu (in any one of the above meanings that I have attached it to) with OK/okayOK? Doing so, what do we find? I believe we have much the same thing. And so for me, Osu is OK.

By the way, just as an aside: there are other parallels of Osu and OK. Like Osu, OK has its controversies. There are a number of theories about OK’s etymology but, like Osu and its place in the dojo, there is no definitive answer. One explanation is that the term originated as an abbreviation of ‘orl korrekt’, a jokey misspelling of 'all correct' which was current in America in the 1830s. And the oldest written references result is from its use as a slogan by the Democratic Party during the American Presidential election of 1840.

Osu Should Not Be an Issue:

The use of Osu is currently an issue; and those who have an audience and are in a position to mock and deride really need to stop and think through their actions. To the offenders (you know who you are) stop the name-calling and the casting of aspirations; just because someone else does something a little differently from the way you do it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

I was recently interviewed by Michelle Darbro Sensei, a Goju karateka, from the Wildcatdojo Conversations Podcast, out of Florida, USA. The first thing she asked me, before we began the interview, was, “What is your stand on Oss… are you offended by its use?” So I know that this is a current issue. It is ridiculous that she should even have to ask, but she obviously does it for a reason: to make sure there are no hiccups, that no one is offended in the interview situation.

Definitive Impasse:

Finally, in regard to the subject of the origins and the definitive meaning of the dojo use of Osu, there seems to be an impasse. The only thing that everyone is prepared to agree to is that it did not originate in Okinawa. Personally, I don’t think that it matters… as long as, whatever way you use and or interpret Osu you do so with Reiho. In fact, if your dojo and or system does not use Osu - perhaps substitutes it with Hai, or even OK – it doesn’t really matter as long as there is Respect… Osu!


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