When you walk into a karate dojo in the United States, you'll eventually here someone say "Oos!" You'll at first wonder what all of the grunting and hissing is about, but soon enough you'll begin to understand that the word is being used to mean hello, goodbye, yes sir, that's cool, and a host of other expressions. "Oos!" permeates many karate clubs, and in many it is enforced upon the membership. Newcomers, unfamiliar with this expression, look at each other in dismay when told to start barking "Oos!" when they walk through the door, approach the instructor, receive a command, receive some pointers, begin an exercise, end an exercise, or are about explode inside from lack of enough oosing.
What is the word, and how did we end up barking it at each other? Why do some people use and overuse it, and why do people who trained in Japan return to the United States no longer speaking the word much - if at all? There are answers to these questions. Forget what you have been taught about "Oos!" It's probably wrong. This article details the expression's real meaning, proper usage, and it's importance in the world of Japanese athletics and machismo.
If you are going to go around barking foreign words at other people twelve to one hundred times per training session, then it behooves you to learn to pronounce this, the most over-used of all Japanese terms, correctly. Most people say "Oos!" the way I have written it up to now. Typically it is pronounced as if it rhymes with the word "book." Too bad that isn't the way it is pronounced in Japan. Osu, or ossu, is properly pronounced with a long "oh" sound. Osu rhymes with rope, boat, and toe.
The long sssss noise you hear in karate clubs the United States and Canada is an affectation as well. Osu shouldn't be said with a lot of hissing. At least, I never, during my two years in Japanese karate clubs, ever heard any Japanese ever say, "Oosssssssssss!"
The 's' sound at the end of the word should be followed by half of a 'u' noise as in the word 'book'. The 'u' at the end of most Japanese words is present, but choked to 1/4 length. Oh-sue would be poor pronounciation. Try saying OHS(u), with the u so short in length that it is almost completely inaudible.
There. At least now you can stop pronouncing it "oos" incorrectly over and over and over again. Now let's learn where the expression comes from.
The word osu has its origin in one of two places. Dr. Mizutani, a linguistics professor at the University of Nagoya thinks that the word's origins are in the term Ohayo Gozaimasu. This greeting literally means it's early, but is not used that way any longer. The expression has become an idiom meaning good morning or I greet you for the first time today. One uses this expression primarily toward one's in-group, not people that one is not familiar with. The expression is very polite, but connotes intimacy.
Mizutani claims that the word becomes contracted in order to sound more familiar and casual, or more familiar, tough, and manly. This linguist actually directed a study in which Japanese joggers were greeted as they were jogging. The replies they gave were noted in the study and tallied up for rate of occurence. Apparently, the following are legitimate contractions of the expression ohayo gozaimasu.
Ohayo - more familiar and intimate; casual usage towards friends and neighbors.
Ohayossu - more athletic, jock-ish sounding. You might here this from a neighbor you don't know well if you greet him while he is jogging past you.
Osu - very tough, rough expression of masculinity. Used primarily by young boys and others engaged in athletic activities together. It is generally aimed toward one's colleagues, not the coach, instructor, or other seniors. 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.
Mizutani finds the word to be used by people engaged in athletics as a rough, abrupt greeting which could be rude if used in a situation where a longer greeting would be possible or more appropriate.
There is another potential source for osu. That source is shown in the way that the word is written. The word is generally written with two kanji. The first one is "osu" - to push. The one on the right is the nin character from ninja. It can also be read as oshi or shinobu, and it means endure, bear, put up with, conceal, secrete, spy, sneak.' Ossu, by this way of creating the word, means "grin and bear it." Does osu have these origins, and is it unrelated to the contractions of Ohayo Gozaimasu? The jury is still out on that one, to my knowledge.
As mentioned before, osu is mandatory speak in many karate clubs, and is used to mean everything and the kitchen sink, too. For this purpose, the word serves very nicely. It is a short noise that doesn't waste a lot of breath. So, tired athletes can bark it without using up a lot of oxygen. It's a rough, manly noise. It is possible to imagine basketball players, baseball players, football players, sumo wrestlers, judo players, and karate enthusiasts all barking this word at each other as they greet each other. It is a sort of US Marine Corp bark. "Ah-oo!"
Much to my surprise, when training in Japan, the adults did not use this word toward each other. At the beginning of the class, everyone would sit, meditate, and then bow saying Osu, Onegai Shimasu, or some expression of "Please teach us." However, after that group usage, no one in the karate club would dare utter it again. They didn't say it to each other, and they didn't bark it at me when I barked it at them. Finally, a few of them confronted me in that soft-touch, beat-around-the-bush Japanese way they have, and they let me know that my "Oossssss!" was unwelcome.
Osu is frequently seen as rude by many Japanese when used in particular situations. It is inappropriate in the office, wrong to use during church, not used in the home, and generally never used at school. That's most of a Japanese' life. Most of the time, the word is inappropriate and considered forbidden.It is a locker room type of expression, very manly, and masculine and macho. Osu expresses a sort of intimacy with others. Think about how you might call your best friend "asshole." He probably laughs. Would you use that toward your boss? Maybe, if your boss and you are intimate.
Osu is also restricted to usage by particular people. Usually only young men ever utter this sound when they are involved in some sort of extremely team oriented sport. A team of girls playing on a rough and tumble soccer team, looking like a troop of amazons, might use Osu toward each other. Remember, all of the people you've read about so far are Japanese children 18 years old and younger.
Because of the intimacy suggested by using such abrupt language, osu is rarely appropriate. Adults, especially females, usually do not use the word osu at any time in the dojo unless they are the type of hard-core type of women who could play professional hockey in Canada.
Some karate instructors encourage their Western students to use the word osu while others recommend they avoid it. It seems to depend mostly upon the economic and social status of the karate instructor. A man who works as a construction worker doesn't mind the word so much as a professor of history. Since many of the instructors in the West who are Japanese teach karate for a living, their mentality is mostly that of a team coach. They tend to encourage the word be used, because it makes them feel like they are in a hard-core, elite team of karate players like they were back in Japan.
Some Japanese will have you using this word as you greet them, simply because they want you to have fun and project toughness and sincerity. Others will get angry if you "osu" them, although this is less likely outside of Japan since the instructors here are fairly used to non-Japanese slaughtering their language for fun.
Still intent on barking Osu! every time you see someone in a karate uniform? You should understand that Japanese is an actual language that actual people speak - just as you speak English. While living in Japan, nothing could get my goat faster than someone trying to speak with me for no reason other than to practice their English. At first I couldn't detect these English Assassins, but, as days turned into months, I grew an EA Detector.
Nothing was more sickening than hearing the Japanese mispronounce the word "Baseball" as bay-sue-bow-ru. And the T-shirts! One mall advertised its clearance sale as "Happy Freshers." It sounded like there were going to be a lot of giggling molestors travelling about the mall. The little bunnies and ducklings on the posters didn't help at all. They only added a morbid quality.
Now imagine that you are Japanese, and that you come to America and visit your karate club. The mispronunciation of counting numbers, technique names, and the hideousness of hearing the Dojo Kun said in Japanese must absolutely send a chill down their spines. Your Japanese instructor may think it is cool, but to Japanese who are not odd-balls who teach karate full time, it must be like going to Disney World in Tokyo. Somehow karate is already askew of normal Japanese life, but seeing that already strange culture then badly translated into people babbling in pretend Japanese must be material for comedy shows there.
One person wrote to me, "Japanese is one of those languages where one syllable out of place gets you into severe trouble. There is a lovely pickled vegetable roll you can order at a sushi bar called oshinko, but if you make the sh sound into a harder ch, you are requesting to be served a penis instead of some rice and vegetables. Ooops."
Another really fine one is the word for 'awaken' which is 'okoshite'. Change one syllable slightly and it becomes an extremely vernacular term for a socially taboo activity. One American businessman travelling across Japan by means of an overnight sleeper train asked one of the train attendants to please awaken him at seven in the morning, and he would offer a nice tip. She shrieked and ran away, returning with a manager who scowled at the businessman mightily and informed him that such practices simply were Not Done on a respectable train. He looked confused. 'But I only wanted to be awakened, okoshite, at seven in the morning because I have an important business meeting to get to.'
The manager sucked in his breath and forced a polite smile, finally realizing the misunderstanding. 'I see. Well, I am sure that what you actually requested from the stewardess at seven in the morning would have awakened you, but probably not in a way you would have liked.' He went on to explain that what he had actually said was 'okushite', which means 'please rape me.' He had managed to request violent sodomy from the stewardess at 7AM. Imagine if it had been that kind of train.
For some other examples that you can discuss even with your old Obaasan, try a word like "hashi". Pronounced the same in all three contexts, it can refer to wooden chopsticks, to a bride, or to the center of something. Or order sake in a sushi bar - will you get the drink, or a plate of salmon?
Here is more commentary on the usage of Osu from someone currently living long-term in Japan: I don't have a clue about the history of 'osu', but in its common usage it's only respectful in a childishly macho way. My six year old uses it when he meets a bunch of eight year olds and wants to prove that he's 'cool' enough to play with them. I know that 'bosozoku' (teenage biker gangs) use it in much the same way. My son might use it to a male PE teacher at school, and is highly unlikely to use it to other male teachers and never would use it to a female teacher. Why? Because it's not respectful.
The shortest definition of osu: "Yo!" Use it accordingly.