Osu!

Osu!

Osu! I occasionally greet people with, "Ehh, howzit?" Those people are my age or younger, people I know well and who have some conversance in Hawaiian pidgin

Now, suppose someone, particularly someone for whom English is not a native language, hears me say, "Ehh, howzit?" to a friend and decides it is the way a reasonably well-educated, upper-middle-class person greets others. After all, they heard me say it, and I make my living using words. Therefore, it must be correct.


So they see their minister at the grocery store, meet their girlfriend's grandmother for the first time or are introduced to the boss of a company where they've applied for a job. "Ehh, howzit?" may not be the best way to say hello to any of them.

Osu is a term familiar to most karateka. The way it is often bellowed in some dojo makes me want to spell it "OSSSSU!"

The term gets plenty of usage. It can mean "yes," "I understand" or "Hoorah." It also can be a way to greet a dojo-mate.

There are several explanations of the term's history. Most agree that "osu" is a contraction of Ohayo gozaimasu (Good morning) and became a common greeting inthe Japanese navy in the early20th century.

Supposedly inspiring tales of "what osu means" are popular in Western dojo. I once heard a Japanese karate instructor deliver to someone who asked an explanation of osu that was patently absurd. Later, I mentioned it to the instructor.

"Made the guy happy, didn't it?" was the instructor's response.

As you know, budo is full of these stories — what the belt colors or pleats in a hakama symbolize, for example. These are myths, stories to supposedly explain or add some kind of meaning to conventions that usually evolved for totally different reasons than those given.

Prometheus did not steal a spark from Zeus to give man fire, although it's a cool story. The black belt did not come about as the result of a white belt becoming discolored by the sweat and dirt of hard training. Both are myths meant to explain things that now exist.

The problem here is that as with ambitious stories about the "real" meaning of osu, the Japanese martial arts are still somewhat mysterious with respect to their origins and lore, which means these tales are taken seriously. Worse, because people don't know the actual basis for much of what they do in the dojo, they create these explanations.

How the greeting of osu became a catch-all expression in some dojo remains a mystery. The word is used by others in unrelated segments of Japanese society: Sushi chefs sometimes use it while conversing with their peers. Young men who are tough or wish to be thought so employ it. In this sense, osu is a rough equivalent to "Yo!" or "Dude!" Women do not say osu in conversational Japanese — although that language is changing rapidly, and it may soon become common for females to use it.

A clue to the appearance of osu in karate dojo has to do with the fact that many of the shotokan teachers of the 20th century graduated from Takushoku University. While it's a fine institution, Takushoku has a reputation for being a jock school. Athletics have always been a big part of the scene there. So you can see why young men at the school, engaged in sports, would use slang like osu. You also can see why graduates who went on to form the core of the Japan Karate Association would continue to use it in their dojo. (The same can be said for other karate and budo dojo where a majority of the graduates have come from schools with similar athletic emphasis.)

Note that in using the pidgin greeting "Howzit?" I'm also signaling to the person that we share some common experiences. It's a way of establishing our relationship, a reminder of the camaraderie we have. It is not all that different from the conversation between those who, upon meeting, find they graduated from the same school and use phrases that were common at that school. If you were introduced to a fellow graduate of Temple University, it wouldn't make much sense to shout, "Roll Tide!" Such expressions are limited to context.

Note, too, that in many dojo, saying osu will result in either ridicule or a sharp rebuke. Since the word also can refer to the male of an animal, shouting a spirited "Osu!" may result in someone shouting back at you, "Mesu!" which means a female. That's a not-so-subtle clue that you shouldn't continue using the expression in that dojo.

In other places, you'll be harshly corrected. In those dojo, osu is considered crude or silly. Again, it's about context. While it's exactly the response a Marine recruit might make to his drill sergeant, if the conductor of the Boston Symphony told the third-chair violin to play a bit more fortissimo, the violinist probably would not scream, "Sir, yes, sir!"

None of this is meant to suggest that you're wrong if you use osu every evening in your dojo. If you're using it among those who share a background in your art or organization, it's a way to generate an energetic spirit within the group. Rather, I'm merely suggesting that you keep two points in mind about osu.

First, don't think that you're saying anything with a deep or hidden meaning. You could just as easily be yelling, "Right back at ya!"

Second, and more important, know that the circumstances in which you might use osu are limited. You won't impress native Japanese speakers by dropping a hearty "Osu!" into ordinary conversations. And you shouldn't misinterpret an osu spoken by a Japanese karate teacher within a specific context as proof that the word is legitimate and appropriate to use in a wider range of interactions with others.Understand?

OSSSSU!

Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit blackbeltmag.com and type his name into the search box.

Introducing Martial Arts School Listings on Black Belt Mag!
Sign Up Now To Be One Of The First School Listed In Our Database.
SUBSCRIBE TO BLACKBELT MAGAZINE TODAY!
Don't miss a single issue of the worlds largest magazine of martial arts.
images.squarespace-cdn.com Creator: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy | Credit: AlamyCopyright: © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

Bruce Lee

A campaign has begun on the petition website change.org to change the name of Lee County, Fla. to "Bruce Lee County." The area was originally named after the civil war general, Robert E. Lee. But now a movement has been started by a group of local artists known as Artsemble Underground which, according to an NBC News report, is owned by Brian Weaver who said living in a county named after a confederate general does not make him proud.
Keep Reading Show less
cdn.vox-cdn.com Aspen Ladd and Norma Dumont Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Norma Dumont vs. Aspen Ladd full Fight video highlights - MMA Fighting

Norma Dumont fought cautious but smart taking a largely uneventful decision over Aspen Ladd in the main event of UFC Fight Night 195 Saturday in Las Vegas. Ladd, who hadn't been in the cage since December 2019, was coming back from a severe knee injury compounded by weight cutting problems. After failing to make weight for a bantamweight match-up two weeks ago, she stepped into the featherweight bout against Dumont on short notice and it all seemed to show. She did little the first three rounds allowing Dumont to build up a lead with little more than her jab. Though Ladd came alive a bit in the last two rounds, Dumont still managed to claim a comfortable unanimous decision.
Keep Reading Show less

ONE First Strike - ONE Championship - The Home of Martial Arts

ONE Championship returned to the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Friday, October 15, with six sensational kickboxing contests at ONE: First Strike.

Not only did the 2021 ONE Featherweight Kickboxing World Grand Prix get underway, but in the main event, the first-ever ONE Featherweight Kickboxing World Champion was crowned. The epic night delivered from start to finish with five knockouts!

Did you miss a second of the action? Return to Singapore as we recap all of the action from ONE: First Strike.

Keep Reading Show less