Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Nope, I'm not a fan of Oregon State University (or Oklahoma, or whatever), though it's very tough to do Google-searches on this Japanese term because of that school. No, osu is a Japanese phrase that has gained a lot of traction in the US Martial Arts community in recent years, and I've come to learn that not everyone agrees on how, when, and with whom it should be used.

My first introduction to the word was at LaValle's Karate, where Dojo Master Instructor Theron Feidt would greet all students with "Osu!" and we were expected to greet him that way in return. I'd never heard the term prior to that (about six months ago), so I just went ahead and did it. It was a nonsense word as far as I knew - nobody ever stopped to explain what it meant or anything. I couldn't even have guessed how it was spelled at that time.

Next, I received an email from one of the senior instructors - Sensei Kris Munger - and he used the word IN the email. Now I knew how to spell it! I decided I might as well find out what it was supposed to signify, so I Googled it. Which was when I discovered Oregon State, thank you very much. I think I finally ended up with a complex search parameter that excluded any pages with "Oregon" or "Oklahoma" in them, and finally came up with a definition along the lines of the one on the Kyokushin Karate "Spirit of Osu" page:
Osu is the one word that you'll hear the most in a Kyokushin dojo or at a Kyokushin tournament.  When you enter or leave the dojo, you bow and say "Osu".  When you greet a fellow Kyokushin karateka, you say "Osu" instead of "hello".  When you respond to an instruction or question in class, you say "Osu" instead of "yes" or "I understand".  When performing kihon waza (basic techniques) in class, each technique is often accompanied with a loud "Osu".  When practicing jiyu kumite (free fighting) in class and your opponent lands a good, hard technique, you say "Osu" to acknowledge your opponent's skill.  As a measure of respect, knockdown fighters at a tournament bow and say "Osu" to the front, to the referee and to each other, before and after the fight.  Osu is used in many situations and seems to mean a lot of things. It means patience, determination and perseverance.  Every time we say "Osu", we remind ourselves of this.
 And that does seem to reflect how the word is used in many American dojos. Lord knows there are plenty of Japanese words used in karate dojos that I understand imperfectly or which I understand only through my instructors (who usually are not themselves fluent speakers of the language). I accepted the word at face value and moved on, never considering that there was controversy about its use. My first indication was actually a Facebook post from a different Sensei who was attending an AAU karate tournament (and who I didn't ask to quote for this article, so I won't). He commented, somewhat facetiously, to the effect that he wished everyone would stop Osu'ing him, and that they seemed to think it was more polite than it really was.

That made me wonder - was it possible the word was being improperly used or just "Americanized" at LaVallee's? They're not beyond taking liberties - the term "seiza" comes to mind. In Japan, it refers to a formalized kneeling position that, like most traditional Japanese concepts as I understand them, is very precise and almost ritualized. But "seiza" is always kneeling on both knees, ankles flat, one big toe crossed over the others, and posterior resting on one's heels (or at least that's how I was taught it at my Aikido dojo). At LaVallee's, they append the number one, two or three to the end of it and use it to denote being up on one knee, sitting cross-legged, and kneeling on both knees, respectively. Given their limited use of Japanese and their Americanization of some of what they do use, I suspected that perhaps there was another side - a Japanese side - to the usage of Osu.

It turns out that a Google search, perhaps not surprisingly, reveals similarly mixed results. I wouldn't have found (m)any Japanese-based sites since my PC is set for English, so the sites I did find were primarily set in the U.S. and Australia. I found several that seemed to reflect the perspective that "Osu is the appropriate response for anything" which you see in the quote above. A few, such as this one, addressed the philosophy of the word without touching on everyday usage, but again the philosophy (and the degree to which the word was given deep meaning) seemed to be more in keeping with American than Japanese usage.

However at Shotokan Karate site 24 Fighting Chickens, I found a very comprehensive article that addressed both the Americanization of the word as well as practical experience with its modern usage in Japan and even research into the linguistic origins of the word. Article author Rob Redmond writes,

“Osu!” is a rough expression. That means it is typically used the way some mild profanity, such as the word -damn-, or slangy pronunciation such as -What up, G-? might be used in English. It is very informal, used between friends, and very close in meaning to when people say -dude- to one another.

 Redmond talks extensively about the circumstances of polite usage in Japan - usually between male peers and especially in athletics, but rarely if ever by females and never between individuals in a superior/subordinate relationship (such as teacher/student) or with individuals who are not part of your "in-group." He even writes about pronunciation - it turns out, if you've heard it used in an English-speaking dojo, it was probably pronounced wrong. But then, according to Redmond, the word Karate probably was, too.

Now, Redmond is careful to point out - and I agree that it's an important distinction - that just because a word has been Americanized doesn't mean it's wrong. He acknowledges that many American words, such as some relating to baseball, are casually and even gleefully mispronounced in Japan. As long as the users know what they mean and nobody is offended, then all's fair, right?

What's important, I think, is two-fold. First, if the word has meaning to the people using it, then it should be consistently used to reflect that meaning and embraced in its usage, regardless of its origins. I mean, the Army pretty much invented the phrase "hoo-ah" to use in their own training (and beyond, I think), and they in turn seem likely to have borrowed it from the US Marine Corps term "Ooh-rah!" They're made-up words, but they have meaning (sometimes a great deal of meaning) to those who use them, so they serve their purpose well. Part of this, however, is to take some time to be sure you know what you want the word to mean and then explain it to your students. At LaVallee's, I've never actually heard anybody say what Osu means to them, yet it's used constantly.

At the same time, the people propagating it should be clear about both its current meaning as well as its origins, so as to properly teach it to their students. It would be easy to assume, for instance, that because the word "osu" is commonly used in American dojos to mean "Hello!" "Yes, sir!" "I understand!" and so on, that it means the same in Japan as well. Unfortunately, in a Japanese dojo (and especially outside the dojo or other athletic environment) the word is actually rude and inappropriate and would be likely to embarrass the American student if they were to use it there.

Luckily, Redmond's article suggests alternate words for anyone who wishes to use more authentically and appropriately Japanese terminology in their training. For instance, as a greeting, "Ohayo gozaimasu" or just "Ohayo" may be suitable. And in Japan, saying "Hai" or "Haa" for "yes" is proper for most student responses during martial arts training, in those situations where any response is required at all. A student could say "domo" or "arigato" to thank their teacher for praise, again if any response were required (as it often is not, if I'm understanding correctly. There seem to be nearly limitless ways to be rude or offensive in Japanese). Redmond writes,
Usually they first ask what we said in Japan instead of “Osu!” We said nothing, usually. When my instructor walked up and down the aisles of trainees, and he corrected us, we looked straight ahead and did not acknowledge his corrections. Sometimes we nodded our heads. Japanese feel it is rude to respond to a lecturing instructor. They feel it is generally rude to speak during class. Far from interactive, the Japanese student stares blankly at you as you go through your lesson teaching things. I found this a little disturbing when I taught classes in Japan. If your instructor insists on an answer, then answer with “Hai!” or the more formal “Haa.”
In addition, the term "Onegaishimasu"is a very polite phrase that I've actually heard used here in the U.S. When I used to train in Aikido and would attend seminars with people from other dojos, this term was commonly used by members of at least one other upstate New York dojo at the time as an invitation or request to partner up to practice a technique. I was told then (and Redmond seems to confirm) that it is a polite word with a meaning akin to "please."

I think what may fascinate me the most, however, is the way in which a Japanese slang word has not only found its way into American karate schools, but has been saddled with so much deep, spiritual meaning besides. It's easy to see the way in which language changes both over time and due to foreign influences - today's modern English is rife with words that were introduced back in the mid-11th century when Frankish Normans invaded Saxon England and added words like "porc" for "pig" and "boef" for "cow". This process clearly continues to this day, sometimes in unexpected places. Luckily, tools like the web, blogs, and online articles give us better tools than ever to sort through information and find meaning.


  1. I went to a seminar where my partner, in an effort to show off his command of Japanese language, kept shouting out "Wakarimasu Sensei!" Wakarimasu is a form of the verb "to understand", but his usage of the word means "I already know that!!" which he proceeded to shout at the instructor for 3 hours. The instructor got a kick out of it, knowing that he was trying... :)

    (For reference, you should say "wakarimashita" which implies that you understood what they just told you.)

    I guess the point is that as long as you have good intentions, it is fine to use a word in a way that makes sense inside your circle. But if you venture afar, you need to be careful not to either offend or to make you and your group look like idiots!