Ōsu, Ōss, Ōssss! 押忍: “The Ō word”…
Ōsu, Ōss, Ōssss! 押忍: To push and persevere. An over-used four (4) letter word that can be utilized thoughtfully.
This article was originally written for www.Gōjūryū.net (the Gojuryu Network) in a 2005 commentary. The subject has since been revisited by many personalities in both Japan and around the world having varied interpretations. With this chapter we simplify our education on the use and meaning of “Ōssu!”
Simply put, Ōssu押忍 is an interjection akin to ‘yes sir’. The terminology was introduced by the Imperial Japanese Navy (Dai Nippon Teikoku Kaigun 大日本帝国海軍) however later popularized by Kyokushinkai 極真会 and Ōyama Masutatsu 大山倍達, with his writing “The spirit of Ossu” (Ōssu no Seishin 押忍の精神). It has since spread through most of the traditional karate world and is generally accepted when not overused.
So, picture this, I walk into a friend’s Dōjō 道場. He is originally from Mexico and is of Japanese descent. “Ōooossu!” I hear, as his students pause class, turn and bow towards the door. As a polite gesture I bow in return without saying anything and have a seat until the end of class. He gives me our common nod of the head after he bows with his students however both he and I are the only that did not state the phrase “Ōoosssssu”.
While pondering the differences of his style and my own (his being Shitō-Ryū 糸東流), I also notice how often the students utilize the phrase “Ōssu.”
The term continues with students blurting a hissing statement as a shortened answer for everything from ‘yes’, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘I understand’, ‘thank you’, ‘good technique’… ‘shall I go on?’, ‘you have body odor’, etc… I continue to observe, that the white belts in the back of class are totally unfamiliar with the term, and as the rank of the class goes higher so does the multiple uses of their ever loving “Ōssu”!
It’s getting to the end of class now and I’m now feeling internal pressure from all the undue stress of hearing this term used so liberally.
Class ends, the students bow out of class with an “Ōssu” for every movement, dress and before exiting two more “Ōssu”. I politely stop one of the nidan 弐段 students just as he is about to offer his courteous “Ōssu” to me and ask him first if that is what he is going to say? “of course,” he answers with a “yes,” and so goes the end of this short story.
Ōsu, It can’t be…
It is impossible for ‘The Ō word” to translate as most or all of the following “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “I’m here”, “I’m leaving”, “Kiai 気合!”,”go right”, “go left”, “do you understand”, “yes, I understand”, “stand up”, “thank you”, “no thanks”, “yes, like that”, “that was great”, “do it again?”, “yes, do it again!”, “where is the bathroom”, “over there”, “OK”, “come here”, “go there”, “train harder”, “you have body odor”, “look at him – now look at me – now look at him – I’m on a horse – now look at me again”…
…………………..I think you get the point.
What is Ōsu?
Many Martial Art practitioners yell this nomenclature at each-other without reason. How many terms and words can this one syllable define? What is the source of “the Ō word”?
Consider this; Is it ok to walk into your Dōjō 道場 speaking only slang? In an interview with Leo Lipinski, when answering a question about “The Ō word”, he stated “I believe Tasaki Shūji 田崎修司 Hanshi 範士 said it best”;
“It is an important Japanese Value.
Ōsu means ‘Endure and suppress yourself’.
“It should not be used frivolously”
Tasaki Shūji 田崎修司 – Founder of Gōjū-Ryū Karate-Dō Seiwakai 剛柔流空手道誠和会
The source of “The Ō word”; an explanation from Obāchan おばあちゃん
Once I was smacked in the back of the head at a childhood friend’s house because of something or other that I was doing. His Obāchan おばあちゃん (Grandmother) always explained her reasons for punishments upon awarding them (we really appreciated that part) and would verbalize that she didn’t want to hear that “Drunk man’s Japanese” while she or any other woman were around and continued with the standard and always memorable phrase “what kind of young men are you?”. I knew what comment she was speaking of but why, no-one had (up to that point) ever explained to us, other (older) men used it at random and we concluded “why doesn’t she say anything to them?”
Either way, I blurted out something in a manner that would require her reaction and hopefully verbal instead of another smack in the head. This came about at the same time as her much appreciated opportunity to sit with the younger generation and educate us on etiquette. As Obāchan おばあちゃん enjoyed telling us the many ‘stories of the good old days’ we were fond when she lived in Shimane Ken 島根県 and Yamaguchi Ken 山口県 – Japan 日本, of while she prepared lunch in the kitchen, our real purpose for listening.
Obāchan おばあちゃん also explained two specific reasons. I’ve since heard both reasons repeated several times since her explanation. The first of which had to do with those drunken Military men again. She said, that in her early days (pre-WWII) anything military was the cool thing to do and drunk military men were common. Exiting the bars at all hours of the morning these men would mumble “Onegai shimasu” whenever upon their comrades or just a personal ‘ohayo’ upon seeing more personal acquaintances however the words never did quite come out that way. Although reputable, this explanation can be replicated.
The second source of “Ōssu”, as I’ve been explained many a time, was that ‘Ōsu’ is a “Macho-man” word. According to some Okinawan elders, Senior Sensei 先生 and many others, it’s been expressed that “Ōssu” (again) originated from the term Onegai shimasu. She continued that “Ōsu”, as many words or terms in Japanese, is the combination of more than one word, which is common to Japanese language.
This would make sense if theorized, in a culture where many people are short on time when passing. However, it would only be acceptable from man to man and definitely not from woman to woman or man to woman. It is still considered impolite and vulgar. It’s like walking by your mother or Fiance and shouting “Yo.” Just not the right thing to say however, if considered in that way, it is (somewhat) appropriate to use (I reiterate) in passing under specific circumstances. In particular, in passing during athletic activities (ex: Joggers in passing or boxers at the gym) but not formal or organized activities such as Karate-Dō 空手道, Aikidō 合気道 or any Budō 武道 for that matter. Again, the term, remains the perfect word for tired athletes to say to each other perhaps after a soccer game when short of breath. Basically a ‘Macho-man’ vernacular.
For years I had not noticed that I’d seldom heard anyone while in Japan 日本 say “Ōssu” other than Kyokushin dōjō 極真道場 or the foreigners visiting. I was oblivious to the void until one of the other visiting Gaijin blurted the phrase loudly on the first day of training camp in Akita 秋田. By chance it was his first time there. Just as the “ooooo…” started to creep out he caught his tongue as he was the only person about to make the statement.
There was no correction necessary because he is more than an intelligent Gōjū-Ryū 剛柔流 player. Besides, follow by example, and there were 90 other students (45 Gaijin) there to help set an example.
Ōssu is considered impolite in general Japanese language. Especially directed to your seniors,
it can possibly be taken or notated as ‘I don’t have the time to address your correctly’.
Because of this, I offer this suggestion, when in Japan 日本
follow the lead of the Nihonjin there to help you.
Fujisawa Orlando 寛 – Okinawa Shōrin-Ryū 沖縄 松林流 Brazil
When is it acceptable to use “The Ō word”?
Like any four (4) letter word, “The Ō word” should be used rarely and only under unique or special circumstances. The ‘quasi-acceptable’ time to use ‘The Ō word’ is in acknowledgement of respect. Picture this;
- You’re having a friendly supervised Kumite 組手 bout with your Senpai 先輩 in the Dōjō 道場 when a perfectly executed Mawashigeri 回し蹴り (round kick) lands right in your ribcage. This is when you can give a quick “Ōssu”.
- You’re jogging through Yoyogi Park 代々木公園 and pass another runner. With a short breath you acknowledge the other athletes with a simple “Ōssu”.
These are the appropriate time to mutter “The Ō word” as a friendly gesture of acknowledgement.
Great uses outside of Japan 日本
Here is the catch – “Ōssu” does generate spirit and comradery in the Dōjō 道場. I’ve seen and heard a championship national Kata 形 team answer the sharpest “Ōssu” before the announcement of their Kata Unsu 形雲手 while bowing. As a universal expression of commitment and training “Ōssu” has become part of many ‘traditional’ Dōjō 道場 outside of Japan and perhaps will continue to do so. We are even aware of Japanese Sensei 先生 whom promotes the use of “Ōssu” in classes, probably for their own reasons or because maybe their college karate club was filled with young men when they trained in Japan 日本 and their teacher accepted such however (personally) one of my past Sensei 先生 is a woman and I’m sure I would receive another ‘smack’ in the back of the head if she heard me use the term to such an exhaustive extent.
Is it OK to use “The Ō word”?
Imagine being in Japan 日本 and hearing everyone commonly interject the following into conversations
- “You know what I mean”,
- “You know,”
- “And um” or
- “But umm.”
Could you believe anyone is possibly having a real conversation speaking gibberish nonsense? Point being, the content of English verbal communication, or any language for that matter, is already close to lost with such terms along with “they” instead of a full description of who “they” refers to. For example: “They closed the bridge.” Who is they and why? … and furthermore, “I don’t know what you mean, know what I mean?”
We understand that is not how intelligent people speak in primarily English-speaking countries. Now switch places with those in Japan constantly hearing “The Ō word” from Gaijin Budōka 外人 武道家.