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Oooos! Ossu! Osssss!

What on earth is going on with so many Karatedo practitioner sounding like Chinese fortune cookies? Who started this Ossu thing anyway? In this installments commentary, we embark [again] with hopes to settle the claims of “OSSU!”

So picture this, I walk into a friends Dojo. He is originally from Hawaii and of Japanese Decent. "Oooossu!" I hear, as his students pause class turn and bow to me. As a polite gesture I bow in return and have a seat until the end of his class. He gives me our common ‘what’s up’ nod of his head after he bows with his students however both he and I are the only that did not make the unfruitful phrase “Ooosssssu”.

While pondering the differences of his style and my own (his being Shotokan and I Gojuryu) I also notice how many times some of the students state the phrase “Ossu”. After a while it starts to get ridiculous. These people are using this 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 up so does the multiple uses of their over loving “Ossu”! It’s getting to the end of class now and I’m now feeling constipated from all the undue stress of hearing this term used so liberally. Class ends, the students bow out of class with an “OSSU” for every movement, dress and before exiting two more “Ossu”, one to me and one while exiting the door. I stop one of the Nidan students just as he is about to blurt out his ‘courteous’ “OSSU” to me and ask him first if that is what he is going to say. Of course he answers yes and so goes the rest of the story.

What is “Ossu”, and why are so many yelling it at each-other? How many terms and words can one syllable define? What is the source of “the word”? Have you ever noticed that when people (who have never been) return from training in Japan, the term has been relatively dropped from their vocabulary? I’m going to answer the questions and in detail. Perhaps to such an extent that many are going to disagree but hey, I’ve been saying the F*** word half my life and I’m not giving up that word either! You’ll just have to trust me on this one that what you think you are saying is not what you're saying at all. I’m not going to explain how to pronounce it because it is generally ‘slang’ and bad slang at that. Now that I am a mature young man (at least I think so) I’m not going to be the one to teach the bad habits. Think of this, would walk around in your dojo saying the F-word. Essentially when you say “Ossu” that is what you are doing (but not to that extreme).

What is the source of “the word”? Once I was smacked in the back of the head at a childhood friends house when I was younger because of something or other that I was doing. His Oba-chan always explained her reasons for punishments upon awarding them [we really loved that part]. Afterwards she verbalized [much more harshly] her grandson - that the same went for him and she didn’t want to hear him saying that “Drunk mans Japanese” word while she or any other woman was around and continued with the standard always memorable phrase “what kind of grandson are you?" [I've heard that one before]. I knew what comment she was speaking of but why, no-one had [up to that point] ever explained to us.

I blurted out something in a manner that would require a 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 school us on etiquette. As Oba-chan enjoyed telling us the many stories of the 'good old days' in Japan we were commonly fond of, while she prepared lunch in the kitchen [our real purpose for listening].

Oba-chan also explained two reasons and I have heard both reasons repeated several times since her explanation. The first of which had to do with those drunken Military men again. She says that back in her day, 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 “Onegaishimasu” whenever upon their comrades or just a personal ‘Ohayo’ upon seeing more personal acquaintances however the words never did quite come out that way. If you or I poured out of a bar at 3:00 am and stumbled upon a group of comrades, how would “Onegaishimasu” come out of our mouths? But of course a garbled “Ossusususss” or possibly worse.

The second source of “Ossu”, as explained to me many a time, was the ‘Macho-man’ word. According to Oba-chan and many others, she expressed to us that “Ossu” [again] originated from the term Onegaishimasu.

She continued that “Ossu”, as many words or terms in Japanese, is the combination of more than one word, which is common in spoken Japanese grammar.

This would make sense if theorized, in Japan culture where many people are short on time and in 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 lover and shouting “YO”. Just not the right thing to say however if considered in that way, it is appropriate (somewhat) to use [I reiterate] in passing. In particular in passing during athletic activities but not organized activities such as Karatedo or any budo for that matter. It still remains the perfect word for tired athletes to say to each other perhaps after a football game when short of breath. Basically a ‘Macho-man’ word.

Have you ever noticed that when people (who have never been) return from training in Japan, the term has been relatively dropped from their vocabulary? I had never noticed until just this past year, but... I've never heard anyone in any dojo say "Ossu" other than the foreigners visiting. I was oblivious to the void until one of the other students from my dojo who was there with me started the phrase on the first day of training. And by chance it was his first time there. Just as the "ooooo" started to creep out he caught his tongue because he was the only person about to make the statement.

It took no explanation because he is more than an intelligent Gojuryu player. I believe that the etiquette would have dictated that the word was inappropriate anyway. Besides, follow by the example and there were One Hundred other students there to set an example.

Ossu is considered impolite in general Japanese language. Especially directed or in the presence of your seniors or women, it notates as quite insulting. I offer you this suggestion, when in Japan, especially for the first time, just follow the lead of the Japanese that might be there to help you. Using the term Ossu is inappropriate in the office, at the Hospital, in the Dojo, at the dinner table, in school, at church, during any ceremony or Reishiki. Just about any and everywhere.

So when is it acceptable to say it? When you're in a hurry, out of breath, in passing and only to another male (not including the Dojo) in such places as the Gym (Golds, 24-hour fitness) while Jogging or in baseball when the other team in running to the infield and you're headed to the outfield. Also, keep in mind "Ossu" is not only a derogatory word but an immature word as well. Most of those using the term are of the much younger generation and for the most part have little to no experience in Budo. Quite often they are younger than Twenty one years of age.

Great uses outside of Japan but not in front of Japanese! Here is the catch - "Ossu" does generate spirit and comradery in the Dojo. I've seen and heard a championship national Kata team answer the sharpest "Ossu" upon the announcement of their Kata Unsu before bow ing. [and they WERE good] As a universal expression of commitment and training "Ossu" has become part of at least half of the 'traditional' dojo that I know of today and will continue to do so. I am even aware of a Japanese Sensei whom promotes the use of "Ossu" in his classes, probably for his own reasons or because maybe his dojo was filled with men when he trained in Japan and his teacher accepted such behavior, however one of my Sensei is a woman and I'm sure I would receive another 'smack' in the back of the head if she heard me use such a term.

So is it OK to use the word?
Imagine being in Japan and hearing someone say "Dude" or "Sweet" every few moments because that was the primary word they heard in a movie [anyone ever see "Dude, where's my car"?]. You walk up to the cash register at Sunkus or 7-11 in Shinjyuku- Tokyo [yes there are thousands of 7-11 in Japan] and the long haired gent on the other side of the counter blurt our "Dude, Sweet" smiles and flashes you a peace sign. Later at Starbucks in Roppingi the waitress says the same thing and at the train station the 'Ticket Koban' makes his peace sign "DUUUDDDEE, SWEEEEET!" and on and on. You and I both know that is not how intelligent people speak in western countries however some select people in Japan may not be aware of such. Now switch places ....... starting to get the feel for our favourite word "Ossu"? Need we explain more?



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