Originally Written in 2018-ish by Matt Sheridan
There is a phrase that is commonly used in some mainland Japanese styles of karate and their offshoots that Okinawans strongly dislike. Thing is this is actually three phrases: Osu, Osu, and Ossu.
You may notice that there are some practitioners that seem to use Osu as a greeting. In Japanese there are pretty standard greeting used at particular times of the day: Ohayo Gozaimasu, Konnichiwa, Konbanwa, etc. The first use of Osu comes from a shortened greeting. In Japanese characters this Osu is written おす. The first character (お) is O, and the second character (す) is Su. This comes from Ohayo Gozaimasu. In Japanese characters Ohayo Gozaimasu is おはようございます. They’ve shortened it taking only the first character お and the last character す.
That doesn’t seem so bad, right? Why would the Okinawans dislike that? Simple, when greeting other martial artist we expect our students to be polite and respectful. I’m sure your sensei has mentioned this aspect of martial arts culture before. Generally the longer the greeting is in the Japanese language, the more polite it is. Ohayo Gozaimasu is very polite. Less formal would he Ohayo (おはよう), which is what you would use with close friends. Osu is essentially the equivalent of yelling, “Oi,” at someone in English. If you are a Punk Rocker talking to another Punk Rocker, that’s absolutely fine… but a martial arts student talking to another martial artist or instructor, especially in a formal setting like a class, seminar, testing, or tournament? Not really appropriate.
The second Osu is often used as words of encouragement. This comes from the Japanese verb, to push. Even in English when we are encouraging people we’ll sometime use the phrase, “push,” such as, “push it out,” “keeping pushing yourself,” maybe drop some sick beats and, “push it real good!” American humor aside, lets get back into linguistics. This Osu is written 押す, in Japanese. This is the standard dictionary form of the verb.
Again that doesn’t seem so bad, right? Why would Okinawans dislike this? The problem is, this is again a slang version of encouragement. You have probably heard two common Japanese phrases:「出る釘は打たれる」which is, “Deru Kugi wa Utareru,” or, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” 「頑張って」 which is, “Ganbatte,” or, “keep at it!” You see in the Japanese language there is already an acceptable phrase for encouragement. Making up a new one is being the nail that sticks up. In short your words of encouragement just became more about you and less about the person you are encouraging. Furthermore this phrase is also used as slang for something else which is not dojo appropriate, something we would consider “bar talk” rather than “polite talk,” and for that reason alone most polite karate-ka avoid Osu as words of encouragement, “to push.” As my old association president used to say, “No. Not good. No. Not right.”
You may be wondering, “now Matt… Matt, Matt, Matt, you completely skipped over OSS and OSSU!” That’s because I was saving the worst for last. Firstly let’s establish that OSS and OSSU are technically pronounced the same and are also written the same (both phonetically and officially) in Japanese. Phonetically OSS is おっす, while OSSU is おっす, and the kanji for both is 押忍.
There are a few verbal and written elements that need brushed on before proceeding to actually translating the term: Pauses and Devoiced Vowels. When we romanize the Japanese language, slight pauses are represented by double consonants. In this case SS, we also see this in the kata name Bassai. In Japanese they are represented with a Chiisai Tsu (小さいつ), or っ. Secondly the U in OSSU is Devoiced meaning you don’t pronounce it, which is funny because everyone yelling “OH-SOO” is technically saying the word incorrectly in the first place. To represent the correct pronunciation people started romanizing the word as OSS, which is also funny because OSS breaks acceptable romanization methods and is an incorrect English spelling. The proper romanization is Ossu and the proper pronunciation is more like O’s’. Fun, right?
On to translation! We have already seen the first kanji in 押忍. Again this is “push.” The second Kanji (忍) has many meanings. You may recognize it from terms like Ninja (忍者) or Shinobi (忍び), where it means “conceal, secret, spy, or sneak,” however in this case it is different. In Ossu, the second kanji (忍) means to, “endure, bear, or put up with.” Thus Ossu is, to push and endure. It can again be used as encouragement, “you should push and endure,” as well as confirmation, “I will push and endure.”
That doesn’t seem so bad, right? Why would Okinawans dislike this? This form of Ossu was introduced to karate via two main individuals who had very similar backgrounds and mindsets. The first was Masatoshi Nakayama of Shotokan, the first technical director of the JKA. The second was Masutatsu “Mas” Oyama, the founder of Kyokushin Karate. Both men served in the Japanese Imperial Military around the time of WWII. Ossu is used in the military similar to how Americans will use, “Sir, yes sir!,” Hoorah,” and “Oorah!” Now, if you recall from history, WWII was the single most devastating event to happen to the Okinawan Island and people, and it was primarily due to the Japanese Imperial Military. Yelling OSSU or OSS in an Okinawan dojo, or Okinawan style, is a slap in the face to the hardships that many of the living instructors had to face in the rebuilding of their homeland following WWII. As well as the hardships they had to face in the 1970s when the US government handed the island back over to the Japanese government, something many Okinawans are still not happy about. Fun… right… oh yeah, the slang we talked with 押す, which isn’t dojo appropriate, also applies to 押忍.