Osu — To Endure (And More) 押忍

Possibly the most iconic expression and concept associated with martial arts, OSU epitomizes the idea of pushing forward, no matter what obstacles are in our way.

Osu 押忍 [pronounced “uh-sss"; note the “u” at the end of osu is primarily silent, and the “s” sound is not drawn out very much] is perhaps one of the most-spoken words in any dojo, and yet its origins are mainly lost in the pre-history of martial arts.

The two character for the kanji mean, respectively, “to push” and “to endure.” The kanji themselves are sometimes transliterated as “osu shinobu” [to endure] or “osu no seishin” [the spirit of enduring]. Regardless, osu is a contraction of those phrases.

At its core, osu means "never give up: always keep pushing forward, no matter what."

The Origins of Osu

The origins of osu are difficult to determine. Most of the concepts in karatedo can generally be traced to a specific time-period (although those time-periods are likely to consist of a range of centuries). This isn't the case of osu, however.

We have written references to the use of osu in the writings of Yamamoto Tsunetomo (1659 – 1719), a samurai of the Saga clan, and the author of the legendary martial arts book Hagakure. But those references imply that osu was in use significantly before the time period of which he was a contemporary.

Another theory was proposed by Mizutani Osamu, a professor of linguistics at the University of Nagoya. Mizutani conducted a number of experiments on the rise of colloquial expressions in Japanese, and while his experiments were concerned with modern Japanese, he theorized that ‘’osu’’ might be a contraction of the more formal expression “Ohayo gozaimasu” which is a very formal way of saying “good morning” and that the contraction might have arose among men focused on martial arts training as a formal, yet "aggressive" way to greet each other.

To be honest, it seems unlikely, although possible, that this explains why osu came to be such an all-pervasive term in martial arts, but stranger things have happened in the history of human linquistics. The biggest problem with this theory is that it doesn't account for the use of osu during training (one hardly repeats "good morning!" when commanded to perform a kata, for instance) but it might just barely be possible that osu began as a greeting and then grew to take on a larger meaning.

The Meanings of Osu

Quite literally, osu means to endure beyond all means, no matter the consequences. Figuratively, some have translated osu as “to endure even though a dagger pierces my heart” or “a spirit that never quits”.

In the dojo, osu primarily serves two purposes: in class, osu acknowledges every command by an instructor. This gives teachers valuable feedback that students understand what is being asked of them. Secondly, osu is used to acknowledge the presence of other karateka, especially those more senior to ourselves.

But there is a deeper and ultimately greater importance to osu.

Osu reminds ourselves that, no matter how difficult the task at hand may be, we endure, and we do so with patience. Osu reminds us that the most difficult person to have patience with is ultimately our self.

So fundamentally, there are three inter-locking meanings to osu: osu is an affirmation ("yes, I understand and I will work with total persistance to accomplish what is asked"); osu is a promise of non-stop striving and persistence to accomplish the ask at hand; and finally, osu is a reminder to ourselves that patience is a key part of persistence, and that patience includes patience with outselves during the striving to accoplish our task.

The Impact of Osu

Osu reminds us that in the end, and in all things of import, we strive with complete and total persistence to accomplish our task. We do not "try our best" and we do not do "all that we could" – such attitudes are counter to what osu means and represents.

Rather, osu is both an affirmation and a promise that, no matter the challenges or the obstacles, a karateka continues moving forward, at all costs, and in all ways, until the goal is accomplished and victory is achieved.

A karateka never gives up. Osu reminds us of that fact.


Kanji/Katakana Meaning
push (Osae) also "press" as in "press forward"
patience (Shinobu) also can be used to refer to perseverance and sometimes, colloquially, even "ninja" [i.e., someone that has indomitable perseverance]

Editor's Note: This lecture was first delivered by Sensei in San Rafael, California on 5 March 2012, and then again at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 14 June 2023.