The Meaning of “OSS” (+ When You Should NEVER Say It)

– Imagine if
there was a magical word that could be used for nearly
anything in martial arts. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Well, for many martial
artists, there is such a word. I’m talking about “osu”. In a lot of karate schools, and even in some BJJ and MMA gyms, the term “osu” seems to mean
everything and anything, including: hi, hello,
goodbye, okay, thanks, excuse me, hey there, come here, go there, what’s up, look at me,
do it this way, that way, do you understand, I
understand, and train harder. It is the ultimate utility
word for many martial artists, insanely useful and
insanely misunderstood. So, where does this
magical word come from? What does it actually mean? Why is it used all the time, and when should you not use it? Well, according to history books, the expression “osu” first appeared in the Officers Academy of
the imperial Japanese navy in the early 20th century. But, funnily enough, many Japanese people don’t even know themselves
where the expression comes from. I know, because I use to
live there and train there. That being said, several theories exist on its true meaning and origins. Here are the three most popular ones. Number One: The Kyokushin Theory. The first theory comes from Japanese full-contact
Kyokushin Karate. You see, in Kyokushin, it’s common wisdom that the term “osu” stems
from a longer phrase known as “Osu no Seishin”. In this particular case, “osu” is a combination of two different kanji, namely the verb “osu”,
which means “to push”, and “shinobu”, which means
“to endure”, or “suffer”. Put together, these two kanji
form a new compound word, which can symbolize a lot of stuff, depending on who you ask. Combat spirit, the importance of effort, and the necessity to
overcome all obstacles by pushing them aside, are some of the commonly-cited meanings of this “osu” version. In other words, since Kyokushin Karate requires extreme amounts of
physical conditioning and guts, this theory says that you’re
verbally reminding yourself to breach your comfort zone by putting your physical and
mental limits to the test every time you say “osu”. Pretty bad-ass… but is
this Kyokushin theory the main reason for today’s
main-stream usage of “osu”? That remains a mystery. Let’s move on. Number two: The Good Morning Theory. This next theory comes from
Dr Mizutani Osamu in Japan. Dr Mizutani, a linguistics professor at the University of Nagoya, and frequently quoted in The Japan Times as a language expert, talks in his work about
a fascinating experiment that he once conducted with
a group of random people, in order to observe the various ways in which subjects would return
a simple morning greeting. Put briefly, Dr Mizutani
greeted unknown people on the streets of Nagoya
with the expression, “Ohayo gozaimasu”,
which is the most polite Japanese equivalent of “good morning”, and he noted the different
responses he got. See, although most subjects
replied in a similar manner, during the course of the
experiment Dr Mizutani noticed that greetings changed
as situations changed. Joggers, for instance,
involved in athletic activity, responded with considerably
rougher language than people who were
just out for a stroll, or were walking their dog. As a matter of fact, Dr Mizutani found that most of the joggers responded with shorter and shorter
forms of the greeting, like, “ohayossu”, “ohayoosu”,
“oossu”, or simply “osu”. So, the conclusion drawn by Mizutani was that “osu” is a very
rough, masculine expression, used mainly by young
men towards other men, most often while engaged
in athletic activities. And that it basically
means, “heya” in English. But is Dr Mizutani’s observation of “osu” the main reason for our
omnipresent usage of “osu” in modern karate and other martial arts? Well, that remains a mystery. Next up, Number Three:
The Onegaishimasu Theory. This last theory is called
The Onegaishimasu Theory, and it’s similar to the
previous Good Morning Theory, in the sense that a longer
and formal Japanese expression gets shortened to a more pragmatic, but less respectful, version. In this case, the original
phrase is “onegaishimasu”, a word that most karate
practitioners have surely heard, or perhaps even used
themselves, in the dojo. Although “onegaishimasu”
is one of the most common expressions used in
Japanese everyday language, it’s actually a pretty
hard-to-translate term in English, and the closest equivalents I can come up with are,
“please do me the favor” or “grant me the pleasure”,
meaning you’re inducing a mutual feeling of gratitude and respect. So, how does “onegaishimasu” become “osu”. Well, I actually noticed
this phenomena unfold myself on many occasions, when I lived in Japan. See, while most regular
students would exclaim, “Onegaishimasu!” as
they bowed to each other before beginning an exercise, a couple of youngsters would always gradually shorten the phrase, until, by the very end of the class, the only thing that could be distinguished from the intended “onegaishimasu”,
was a simple “osu” grunt. Needless to say, these same youngsters would regularly shorten
the other expression “Otsukaresama deshita”,
a traditional phrase said after you finish training,
to a simple, “tsukare”. So, is this the ultimate reason why so many karate people
use “osu” like crazy? Maybe. But now that we got the
history lesson out of the way, let’s talk about something
really important. You see, there are some instances when you should never say the word, “osu”. Although the usage of “osu” has reached embarrassing heights
in modern karate today, including MMA and BJJ gyms, you must know this one thing: Never say it to a Japanese person, unless he is younger than you, lower in social status, or wants you to say it. And if you’re a woman, you
shouldn’t really say it at all. This is how strict Japanese culture is. You see, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if the term “osu” derives from the philosophical concept of The Kyokushin Theory, from the good morning
greeting “Ohayo gozaimasu”, or from the phrase, “Onegaishimasu”, because, as a rough, masculine expression, “osu” should be used very carefully, especially towards Japanese masters and people of higher rank,
status or age than you. This is a very touchy subject, because “osu” expresses
a strong assertiveness, masculinity, and a “let’s-kick-butt”
spirit in Japanese. It’s not something you
say at the dinner table. But listen, I totally get it. It’s fun to imitate Japanese culture. And in some martial arts schools, this seems to be what
99% of class is about. And it’s not a federal crime
to use “osu” inappropriately. But it should be used
with full understanding of it’s meaning and implications, and only if you feel
you can stand behind it. But Jesse, what should I say instead? Well, in nine times out of 10, there are two very good options. Either you say, “hai”, or you say nothing. “Hai” is the commonly-used
word in Japanese for “yes”, “understood” or “affirmative”. But most importantly,
just shut up and train! However, if your instructor demands “osu”, then go ahead and say it, because it would be
disrespectful to not say it. At the end of the day,
that is what matters. Like Funakoshi Gichin, the
founder of Shotokan Karate, once said, “Karate wa rei ni nihajimari, rei ni owaru.” “Karate begins and ends with respect.” Thanks for watching.

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