Why We Say “Osu!”

Everyone training at Saratoga Karate and likely in karate dojos around the world has heard it, symptoms used it, ask and perhaps asked, “what does it mean?” Martial Artists often use the sound “Osu” to express their attitude toward training and each other. In a lot of karate schools including the Tenkara dojo “Osu!” seems to mean everything and anything – including: “hello” “goodbye”, “yes” “okay”, “thank you”, “excuse me”, “do you understand?”, “I understand” “train harder” and “great job”.

So, did you ever wonder where this catch-all single syllable sound comes from? Well, there are two prevailing theories of why we say “Osu!”

osu-kanji“Osu!” is a combination of two different kanji (Japanese characters). The first kanji, “osu” is a verb meaning “to push” as in to push aside or overcome obstacles. The second kanji is another verb, “shinobu” meaning to “to endure/suffer” or “to hide”. It implies the concept of pain along with the idea of courage, in other words the spirit of perseverance.

Research indicates that the expression “Osu” first appeared in the Officers Academy of the Imperial Japanese Navy, in the early 20th century. Since karate was developed during a militaristic period in Japan’s history, it is not surprising that the use of the expression drifted from military use to martial arts.

The second theory put forward by Dr. Mizutani Osamu, a linguistics professor at the University of Nagoya via an experiment he conducted regarding greetings between people concluded that Osu is probably a contraction of the formal Japanese expression for good morning, “Ohaiyo gozaimasu” A less formal greeting would be “Ohaiyo” and a much less formal exchange between men, mainly young men particularly when engaged in athletic activities, might be to merely say “Osu”.

This is a good time for a brief lesson in the Japanese language. First of all, “Osu!” is a masculine word, associated with all types of athletic activities, not just the martial arts, and mostly used as an exchange between males. The term is generally not directed at women, unless they are participating in athletic activities and beyond those time you usually will not hear women using the term.Karate black belt class shouting "Osu!"

As for the pronunciation, while many Westerners will say oosss as if it rhymes with moose, the correction pronunciation is oh-ss with the “oh” sounding like the “o” in most. The u at the end is silent, although if you listen to a native Japanese speaker it is pronounced although it is virtually imperceptible to a Western ear.

So have fun shouting “Osu!” during your karate instruction. Remember to say “OSU!” loudly and respectfully when Shihan, Senseis and Sempais enter the dojo. Osu!!

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