What is Oss? ”押忍”とは何ぞや？
Here is another Japanese culture lesson today. We will take the same process of understanding the base meaning of the kanji that is used for this popular dojo word. Then I will add the interesting cultural aspect of this unique word.
This word is pronounced and written in a few different ways. Many write “Osu” or “Oss”, some pronounce it “Ous” and I write “Ossu”. They are just different pronunciations and all of them are “correct”.
O from “oss” is written like this,押 and it means to push or suppress. The part of “ss” or “su” is written in kanji as 忍 which means to endure or persevere. Therefore, these two kanji together, 押忍 symbolizes the attitude of suppressing your own emotions and endure the hard training or tiring toil or duty. This word is commonly used by the budo practitioners such as karate, judo and kendo. But it is also used by the athletes of the sports that are typically considered aggressive or macho such as baseball, football, etc.
It is also typically used by the male practitioners or athletes in Japan. This is because “osu” is also written as 牡 which means “male”, therefore many Japanese female feel uncomfortable saying “Osu”. In many dojo they are allowed or even recommended not to use “Osu” and use the normal greeting words and also yes and no when they answer back to their sensei , senpai and colleagues. As Judo and karate became so popular around the world, so did the word Oss/Osu. The cultural part of the word being very male oriented, however, did not spread so many western female practitioners and athletes use this word.
Let’s look at the history. Surprisingly, the origin is not clear and there are a few theories. I share two of them.
One theory is that this word was invented only in mid-20th century in the imperial Navy of Japan which supposed to have nurtured the spirit of samurai. The way it happened was like this. The Japanese for Good morning is Ohayo gozai masu. The soldiers were trained to do things in a hurry all the time in the navy including the greetings and responses. Thus, supposedly, the greetings of Ohayo gozai masu was cut down to only “O” and “su” and became “O-su”. The greetings for the afternoon and evening are different, of course, but “Osu” began to be used for all occasions including the answers whether it is yes or no.
Another theory says it was invented by the samurai of Saga clan (佐賀藩in Kyushu Island). Famous author of Hagakure (葉隠), Yamamoto Tsunetomo (山本常朝 1659 – 1719) was born in this clan and bushido was very strong and strictly exercised there. Supposedly the young samurai of Saga clan in 18th and 19th centuries used “Osu” for their morning greetings.
If you are interested in Yamamoto Tsunetomo, see Wikipedia about his biography:
Hagakure was considered by many samurai as the spiritual guide to true bushido. If you do not know about this famous book, Hagakure read the simple explanation in Wikipedia:
Many people asked me why there is only one “Osu” for both yes and no answers. To be able to understand this you need to understand the culture of bushido or Japanese martial arts. The backbone of bushido is total obedience. Read Hagakure and you will have a better understanding whether you agree or disagree with the fundamental concept of total obedience. Here in the western world, when a sensei says “jump” the students may ask “why” or say “no”. Of course, some of them may ask “How high?” In a Japanese dojo, all the students without an exception would answer “Osu” and jump. So, there is no need for a “no” answer in a dojo in Japan. I am sure many Western people would probably consider this act “stupid” or brain washed and unwise. I want to emphasize that the purpose of the comparison of the cultures of the two different worlds is not to judge which is better or right, but rather to show merely the differences so that the readers will have a better understanding.