To “Oss”, or Not to “Oss”? The Difficult History of Oss!

By Andreas Quast

Especially in Shotokan, the term “oss” is omnipresent. But most of the Shotokan Karateka do not know where and why it emerged. In fact, it has a difficult history that dates back to the 19th century and the foundation of the Dai Nippon Butokukai. A brief look into the history of “oss” suggest to think twice about whether we should still use it or better not.

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The Dai Nippon Butokukai

The “Society of Martial Virtue of Greater-Japan” (Dai Nippon Butokukai) was established in 1895. It was the year of Japan’s victory against China, ending millennia of cultural and military hegemony of the “Middle Kingdom”. The purpose of the Butokukai was to promote the Japanese bujutsu. It should also galvanize them with the “martial spirit” of Emperor Kammu (reigned 781 – 806) into an ideology of a Japanese spirit (wakon 和魂). This was later propagandized by Japanese nationalists as “the brave, daring, and indomitable spirit of Japanese people”. It also became one of the key doctrines of Japanese militarism. The construction of the Hall of Martial Virtue (Butokuden) was completed in 1899 close to the Heian Shrine in Kyōto and branches of the Butokukai were established throughout the country. Every year in May the Butokukai held its Festival of Martial Virtue (Butokusai) Here it was where Okinawa karate first appeared in Japan.

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The Birthplace of Oss: The Senmon Gakkō

In 1905 the Butokukai opened a private training institute in Sakyō, a district of Kyōto. It became known as the Dai Nippon Butokukai Budō Senmon Gakkō. Literally translated this means the “Specialized School for Budō of the Society of Martial Virtue of Greater-Japan”. Built and managed by the Butokukai, the school served the training of bujutsu-instructors – mainly kendō and jūdō – who were active in regular school education. The purpose of this institution was the same as that of the Butokukai: i.e. the practice of bujutsu and the cultivation of a samurai spirit. A main focus in the education of the bujutsu-instructors for higher school education was the study of the Japanese language and of classical Chinese texts. This was deemed necessary to ensure that the students were also able to theoretically study and understand them.

Senmon Gakkō: A Ferocious Training Regime

The Senmon Gakkō was considered as one of the best institutes for the training of martial arts instructors in the country. Admission was granted without exception to the male gender only. A minimum necessary rank in budō had to be achieved, too. In the event of failure to achieve this rank the university degree was denied. In kendō the students in the first grade were only allowed to practice kirikaeshi (diagonal strikes to the head alternating from the left to right). In the second grade they were only allowed kiri-kaeshi and kakarigeiko (fierce repetition of techniques in the chord). Jigeiko (free fight, without scoring) was allowed only in the third and fourth grade. Strong basics and spirit were emphasized. Techniques included even grappling and brawls and other techniques unknown to modern kendō. Training was ferocious, including fatalities.

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Strict Hierarchy and Evaluation

Once a month an “Evaluation Meeting” took place, hosted by the students of the fourth grade. The third and lower grades had to listen to their “sermons” and exhortations for around two hours while kneeling in seiza. In case of failures in everyday life or elsewhere, such as failing to show courtesy or satisfactory submissiveness, they were physically chastised. A pronounced sempaikohai-relationship with its hierarchical pecking order was a serious matter in this school’s tradition. Graduates of the school received a state license as middle school teachers without having to have completed a proper teacher training course or the accompanying examination.

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Budo and the Pre-War Era in Japan

From the 1920s to the 1930s budō witnessed a rapid growth, however, just as a bone in the skeleton of Japanese militarism. While militarism, colonialism, and imperialism were clearly visible already for decades, war escalated from the Manschurian Incident (1931) into the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the Pacific War (1941-1945) as part of World War II. Budō as well as the Butokukai as the most prestigious and influential institution became closely associated with ultranationalism and “Emperordom”. Japanese martial arts grew during this time primarily because they were a cog in the ideological machine of national mobilization.

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Dissolution of the Dai Nippon Butokukai abd the Senmon Gakkoo

With the defeat of Japan in 1945, the General Command of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces dissolved the Dai Nippon Butokukai and banned the teaching of budō in schools and universities. The Senmon Gakkō was renamed to “Kyōto Specialized School – Department of Humanities and Literature” (!!!). But it closed its gates after the last graduation ceremony in January 1947.

It was the Senmon Gakkō where the salutation “oss!” was born. It is the gross residue of an obsolete male language, bordering to the obscene, and the expression of an ideological budō closely related to ultranationalism, militarism, and imperial megalomania.

To “Oss”, or not to “Oss”? For me it is not a question!

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2 Comments

  1. Very interesting article. From a historic point of view. I don’t quite see the political or even ethical implication of it for me or for karate in general.

    More then 70 (!) years ago the Japanese military held an important role in Japan. They had the power and set the rules. Not much different from many European powers in the past. It was at that time that the OSS movement started. We learn now from this article that they also did a lot of Kirikaeshi in kendo back then. When we skip OSS, does that mean that we also have to get rid of Kirikaeshi?

    Yes, OSS is a macho thing. Always has been. Even though it’s being used by females as well. I’ve heard OSS a lot at Nittaidai, which is kind of a macho school. It came from Karateka and Kendoka of course. But also from soccer and rugby players. I don’t think any of them meant it as a political statement. (And even if, it’s their country. They should deal with their own history in their own way.) I heard it my alma mater Tsukubadai, which is a very liberal, Top 10 university. No nihonjinron here. And what’s more, it is pretty popular with the yakuza. And yes, those guys are rather nationalistic. So, it is being used by a variety of people in today’s society. Without a political statement, just because it so handy to use.

    Well how does that all affect me? Actually, not at all. See, Karate and especially the macho JKA had and still have a close affiliation with Shinto. That doesn’t mean that I need to believe in river ghosts (and mostly I don’t). But I’m still able to practice Karate. Which is actually all that I want to do: practice Karate. We use Japanese terms; count in Japanese; we love to call others (and especially ourselves) sensei and we also use the abbreviation OSS. Like it or not. It’s about taste, NOT a political statement.

    I’ve come across the issue OSS a few times in the past. Also in Okinawa. It was not so much the actual use of the word that people had a problem with. It was much more their dislike of the popular (at least in many western countries) and still fairly powerful JKA that led them to speak out against OSS. I always felt a little like dealing with a pubescent kid rebelling against her parents.

    By the way, I’m not going with OSS. Not for ethical ethical reasons. But for the distaste I feel when I see many westerners putting more energy in yelling than effort in actual practice.

  2. In the Kyokushin and World Oyama systems (and other systems that are rooted in Kyokushin) Osu means to Push to your limits and endure. And is NOT a substitute for hard training (spar a Kyokushin fighter and see).

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