In many BJJ gyms and academies across the world, the term and sound “Osu” is used widely, loudly and it fills the air when practitioners are rolling. But what are the true origins, history, meaning and essence of this term? You see, what we’ve found is that many practitioners don’t actually fully understand this term but they use it as it is a common phrase and their professors and training partner use it liberally.
So we decided to make this post which will take you through the various meanings and the essence that is attached to the term “Osu”. We sourced some useful information from shotokanryukaseha.com to take you through the origins of the term, the baggage that comes with using it, the proper pronunciation, the rules for appropriate use and the essence of it.
What we want to ensure is that you know the meaning of Osu in martial arts, and more importantly, why and when you should use the expression.
The Meaning Of Osu In Martial Arts
Regarding the Origin of “Osu!” two theories are prevailing.
The first one comes from Dr. Mizutani Osamu, a linguistics professor at the University of Nagoya and his work Japanese: The Spoken Language in Japanese Life. He talks about an experiment with people in returning greetings. He has concluded that Osu is probably a contraction of the more formal expression “Ohayo gozaimasu” which means, very politely, “It is early”, and is commonly used in Japan as “good morning”. Mizutani connsiders that “Osu!” is a rough expression used by men toward other men, that it means “Hi ya!” in English. More specifically, Ohayo is a more familiar and intimate expression, used in a casual way towards friends and neighbours. Ohayossu or ohayoosu is a more athletic, male expression. You might hear it from a neighbour you don’t know well, if you greet him while he is jogging past you. Ossu or oosu is a very tough, rough expression of masculinity. Used mainly by young people and others engaged in athletic activities together. It is generally aimed toward one’s colleagues, not the coach, instructor, or other seniors. Attention; the expression is avoided by women, unless the particular culture of the athletic activity has become one in which the ladies use this word regularly. (Writers note: Men’s and women’s language usage differs more in Japanese than it does in English. There are distinct feminine and masculine expressions and the Japanese find it inappropriate for women and men to use each other’s language.)
The other theory to the origins of this word has been taken from the kanji used to write the word in Japanese. The first kanji is the Japanese verb osu which means “push.” It symbolizes the combat spirit, the importance of effort and the necessity to overcome all obstacles, push them aside and advance with a steady positive attitude. The second kanji is the Japanese verb shinobu which means “endure” or “hide.” It refers to the notion of pain and expresses the idea of courage, the spirit of perseverance and the resistance to withdrawal.
Just for the history, the expression firstly appeared in the Officers Academy of the Imperial Japanese Navy, in the early 20th century and later it became common among karate circles. This is emphasizing the rough masculine nature of the word. Remember also that Shotokan and the other karate styles in Japan as well, were developed somewhere in a period of militaristic up growing in Japan’s history and practiced mainly in universities.
The next thing now that we know what Osu means, is to ask ourselves: Do you say it properly? Listening to people you may have found three pronunciation options: oossu, ossu, and ohsu. Although there is no change in meaning, from one pronunciation to another, seems to be that only one is correct. Oosssss! That is how most Westerners say it – as if it rhymes with “book” and hiss at the end. I will resist the temptation to make a full analysis of the usage of the Japanese language. I will only say that the one pronounced correctly it sounds “Oh-ss” and rhymes with coast, toast, and most. Please note that, in Japanese, the u at the end of the word is silent and it is not necessarily pronounced at all. The Japanese actually do always pronounce it, but for a quarter beat. It is so slight in some people’s speech, more noticeable in others, and not noticeable at all in the speech of many. It depends both on the accent of the Japanese in question and the Japanese pronunciation rules.
As a rough, masculine expression (in Japanese) “Osu!” should be used very carefully, especially towards Japanese. When someone uses it, should follow the appropriate usage conventions, which will prevent from osu-alholism, and will allow every karate club to continue to use the term in a more accurate imitation of Japanese karate culture. “Osu!” is primarily a greeting. It is used toward other people, not toward an empty room when you bow. You don’t say it out before you perform a kata or yell it at judges in a tournament. You could potentially use it to mean “Roger” or “Let’s go!” It is never a question and does not mean “I understand.” “Osu!” is a rough masculine word, definitely associated with athletic activities, not just the martial arts and mostly used by men toward other men or boys and generally not directed at women, unless they belong to previous mentioned exceptions. Women who use the word are few, to include female karateka or athletic teams. And of course I have heard it being used on board Japanese warships in the above mentioned way. Importantly Japanese always use polite speech when addressing outward, away from their in-group and plain speech toward the in-group. So, when “Osu!” is used toward another person at the dojo, indicates that the two of you are comrades.
There are plenty of times when you should not use “Osu!” toward other people. Those rules are pretty simple, but there are quite a few of them. To simplify things, Osu neither means “Yes nor “I understand”, although sometimes it is used that way. Hai or Onegaishimasu deems more appropriate. You don’t use “Osu!” toward women, since women in Japan, being addressed by men, should be treated in a certain polite way. Not toward strangers also. “Osu!” is an in-group expression, so it is appropriate to use it toward your own group of friends, and inappropriate to use it toward those you have a more distant, polite relationship.
So you see, “Osu!” is a unique expression. Not all it’s uses at all gyms we’ve been to are appropriate. But hey, it not a massive crime that it’s not used properly but we wanted to give you a full understanding of the term so that you don’t throw it around to liberally in the future.
We think it’s a great term for camaraderie, respect, sportsmanship, team building with trust and just to give you that exhilarating feeling when you pound it out loud. And maybe that’s the more enduring legacy the term will leave in years to come.
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