Ossu Kanji

Japanese characters for the word “Ossu”

One word that you’ll hear more than any other in and around a karate dojo  is the word “OSSU!”. This ubiquitous word is used in many and varied situations for example, when a karate-ka enters or leaves a dojo they will utter “ossu”. When karate people meet “ossu” is generally the greeting and in class quite often “ossu” is used a response to a question.

“Ossu” is one of those universal words that means so many things like “hello”, “goodbye”, “I understand”, “yes”, “thank you” and “I agree”. It truly is the ultimate utility word for martial artists! The interesting thing is that although this word is Japanese based, many Japanese never use it and wouldn’t know what it means! So the question is often asked about the origin of the word “ossu” and in fact there are 3 distinctly different versions relating to its derivation.

One popular belief of the origin of the word is that it came from the Japanese Navy prior to World War II where it was supposedly used to nurture the spirit of the samurai in naval personnel.

Another theory of the word’s origin was put forward by Dr Mizutani Osamu, a professor of linguistics, who conducted a number of experiments using the Japanese words “Ohayu Gozaimasu”. This phrase is used as a “good morning” greeting and Dr Osamu repeatedly said this to random strangers around his city and found the responses he got varied from “Ohayu Gozaimasu” through to “Ohayu”. Interestingly he found that respondents engaged in vigorous physical activity such as jogging, came back with the shorter response “oh-su” and he concluded this could be a contraction of the two words “Ohayu Gozaimasu”and is perhaps a lazy way of saying the equivalent in English of “hey” or “yo”and just because the root of these words means “good morning”, it doesn’t mean people saying “Ossu” are thinking that.

Similarly it’s been proposed that “Ossu” is a contraction of the word “Onegaishimasu,” a polite catchall word that generally means “please” and sometimes “sorry.”

The third theory relating to the origin of “ossu” comes from Kyokushin karate. Here it’s thought “Ossu” is a contraction of the words “oshi” (meaning push) and “shinobu” (meaning to endure) and the resultant “Ossu” has a meaning of patience, determination and perseverance and Kyokushin devotees are reminded of these characteristics when using this word.

Whatever the true background of  “OSSU”, this unusual word is used (sometimes excessively!) in many karate dojo around the world and is understood in any language. A final consideration with the use of this word is that essentially “ossu” is considered a rough, masculine expression used particularly as a greeting between men and rarely used by women (except in a dojo setting).

Generally in WSKF dojo in Australia, the Japanese word for yes – “hai” – is preferred when acknowledging a command from an instructor for example.