“Ossu! Ora Goku!” Explained

“Ossu! Ora Goku!” (押っ忍! オラ悟空!)

If you’ve seen Dragon Ball in Japanese, then you’ve heard Goku say this phrase. But do you know what it means or why Goku says it?

It’s the first line in the official Son Goku Song from Dragon Ball episode 43, sung by Masako Nozawa.

And it was used in a Dragon Ball Z special in 2008, called “Doragon bôru Z: Ossu! Kaette Kita Son Gokû to Nakama-tachi!!” Translated to “Yo! Son Goku and His Friends Return!!”

It is Goku’s only catch phrase and is synonymous with Goku.

Read on to discover why.

What Ossu! Means

First, I’ll teach you how to pronounce Ossu! (押っ忍!)

Ossu! is pronounced “Ohss!” with a bit of breath exhaled at the end. It rhymes with “toes,” but without the ‘t’ and has an ‘s’ sound like in ‘snake’, rather than a ‘z.’ It is spoken quickly.

O (押) means to pledge, to push, and to commit. It’s comprised of the radicals for hand (手), field (田), and center (中), and implies bringing your hands to the center of your body and pressing the hands together in a pledge or vow. In a more spiritual and martial sense, to the center dantian energy field (中丹田) in the middle of the chest.

The tsu character (っ) doubles the letter of whatever follows it, in this case being su and making the phrase into Ossu!

Su (忍) means to endure. It’s comprised of the two radicals of knife (刃) and heart (心). On an ordinary level it means to endure or forbear suffering and pain. On a deeper level it means to dig out your normal, everyday persons heart comprised of emotions, so it can be filled with something nobler: To transcend the human condition via suffering and endurance.

On a related note the character is also pronounced shino and is the root of shinobi / shinobu (忍び), i.e. one who endures. Shino is also referred to as nin (にん), such as in ninja (忍者, にんじゃ) and ninjutsu (忍術, にんじゅつ). Both the shinobi and ninja are renown for their endurance and commitment.

If you’re familiar with Naruto, a spiritual successor to Dragon Ball, then you’ll understand that Naruto’s “Way of the Ninja” (nindo, 忍道) is about committing to his bonds of friendship and enduring great suffering on behalf of others. He says, “Give up on me giving up! That’s my Way of the Ninja!”

It’s the same with Goku, who simple mindedly endures great suffering and often wins battles solely because he never gives up.

When you say Ossu! (押っ忍!) you are making a pledge to endure, do your best and give it your all. You’re going to push forward, forbear, and overcome challenges.

To transcend the normal and become supernormal.

The Origin of Ossu!

son goku power up ossu

The origin of Ossu! is no longer commonly known in Japan. As a result, there are a few different theories as to where the phrase originates.

One is that Ossu! originates in Japanese martial arts. Particularly in Karate.

As much as I tried to trace it back to traditional Karate, or to Chinese martial arts, I could not.

The fact is that Ossu! is not spoken in Okinawa, the birthplace of Karate. Karate was exported to Okinawa from China during the Tang Dynasty (唐朝) (618 AD to 907 AD), and called the Tang Hand (唐手), and later called Empty Hand (空手, karate), where it evolved to become uniquely Japanese.

Since the mainland Japanese received Karate from Okinawa, and Okinawan’s don’t say Ossu!, it is unlikely that it originated there.

Another theory is that Ossu! is a shortened version of ohaiyō gozaimasu (おはようございます), which literally means “it is early,” but is used to politely say “good morning.” In more casual settings it’s fine to simply say ohaiyō.

Linguistics professor Dr. Mizutani Osamu at the University of Nagoya in Japan specializes in language’s use in society. In his book, “Japanese: The Spoken Language in Japanese Life” (1981) he performed an experiment where he said “ohaiyō gozaimasu” to random people around town and then observed their responses.

He found that when people are relaxed and walking down the street they respond with ohaiyō gozaimasu, but when they are tense or performing physical activity such as jogging, they shorten the phrase to ohaiyō, and the more active they are, the shorter the phrase, eventually becoming oh-su.

So it’s a sort of lazy way of saying hello back to someone, like “hey,” or “yo!’

Yet another theory is that it originated before and during World War II, when Japanese militarism was on the rise. The Imperial Military taught the soldiers to say Ossu! as a unifying, team building practice, similar to the United States Marines shouting “Oorah!” In this sense it maintains the meaning displayed in the kanji.

But where did the military get it?

My theory is that it came from the Martial Arts Experts College, (Budō Senmon Gakkō, 武道専門学校), an elite martial arts instructors academy founded in 1895 in Kyoto. The school was the most advanced in Japan, was strict, and emphasized traditional arts in direct contrast to the modernization of the times, with its focus on western technology, guns and leisure.

For decades the academy trained many high ranking martial artists of the 20th century, such as Kenshiro Abbe (1915 to 1985), founder of Kyushindo.

These masters and their students were then conscripted into the military where they served or taught others how to fight.

When Japan demilitarized after the War and started teaching Karate and other martial arts in schools and universities across the country to improve health and fitness, “Ossu!” went along with them.

After that, those arts spread to the rest of the world and became franchised McDojo’s, where it was said countless times.

It’s also possible that both the shortening of ohaiyō gozaimasu and the traditional martial arts Ossu! occurred in parallel, as there are many words in the Japanese language that sound alike and are used interchangeably.

Ossu! is now a common part of the Japanese martial arts world (budō sekai, 武道世界).

Ossu! in Budo

dragon ball z goku ready to fight

In a single word, Ossu! reaffirms the lesson of endurance and perseverance.

This is what Japanese martial artists call “the spirit of ossu” (ossu no seishin, 押忍の精神). It is the quintessence of their beliefs.

In general it is a positive, affirmative expression used when entering and exiting the dojo, when taking commands from the Sensei, or to say “I will do my best.”

Martial arts require a great deal of commitment, and are more about transforming the mind than the body. Your body will fail before your mind, so saying “Ossu!” strengthens the mind’s will to get your body past its normal limits for a period of time.

Ossu! is often used in the Japanese martial arts world on the main island of Japan. It is most commonly used in Karate and particularly emphasized in Kyokushin Karate, because Kyokushin emphasizes hard discipline where the spirit of Ossu! is essential.

Ossu! is not spoken in Aikido, Judo, or the sword arts such as Kendo. But since Karate is the most popular martial art, it’s now a common understanding in society that ‘martial artists say Ossu!’

So much so that even Goku says it.

Modern Ossu!

ossu say no to smoking

Nowadays, Ossu! is such a common phrase in the dojo (particularly in the western world) that it has lost most of its original spirit.

Martial artists now say Ossu! to mean “hello,” “goodbye,” “understood,” “yes,” “okay,” “thanks,” “excuse me,” “look at me,” “do it this way,” “hey,” “train harder,” as a kiai when striking, or as a form of achievement, such as “boo-yah!”

Outside of the dojo it is no longer written in kanji (押っ忍), reflecting the traditional meaning above, and is now written in hiragana (おっす) to maintain the pronunciation.

As a result it has has become an all purpose word or used in a context in which it originally didn’t, such as an informal greeting between male teenagers or fellow martial artists. They say Ossu! in a friendly way to mean “What’s up?” or “Hey, dude!” Such as, “Ossu!?” “Ossu!”

It is also spoken outside of the dojo as a statement of male vigor, in a cocky way to hit on women or pick fights.

For these reasons Ossu! is perceived negatively as the common phrase of punks.

To point, the phrase was even used in the title of a manga published in Weekly Young Jump called “Osu!! Karate Bu” (押忍!!空手部, “Go!! Karate Club”) from 1985 to 1996 about the misadventures of a school’s karate club filled with punks fighting on the street.

Part of the value of this article is to help explain the original meaning of Ossu! so it can be viewed in a more positive light.

Why Goku Says Ossu!

ossu ora goku dragon ball kai next episode preview

Goku is ‘a martial artist’ personified, but it’s strange because Goku doesn’t practice Karate. He practices a style similar to traditional Chinese martial arts.

So there are two possibilities for why Goku says Ossu!

The first is simply because “he’s a martial artist and martial artists say Ossu!”

The other is that he is a country bumpkin and speaks with a funny accent, in a rough, simple minded manner, and his self-introduction would also be very crude. Goku wouldn’t say ohaiyō gozaimasu. He would say Ossu!

Because there are two different contexts in which he says Ossu! it’s important to distinguish them apart.

In the context of the next-episode previews, Goku is the main character and is simply saying “Hi! I’m Goku!” in the loveable Goku fashion. Masako Nozawa usually says the line with a very positive attitude and optimistic tone, followed by an explanation of what will happen next.

It’s common in anime to have next-episode previews in which a leading character will say a certain phrase each time. For example, at the end of each episode of Higurashi When They Cry they say, “Can you believe it?” For Dragon Ball it’s “Ossu! Ora Goku!”

But in the episodes themselves, Ossu! takes on a different tone.

When he’s being angry with his opponents and declaring ‘who he is,’ in a battle, he’ll say “Ossu! Ora Son Goku da!” It’s like saying, “I’m Son Goku! (the Saiya-jin raised on earth), and I’m gonna show you what I’ve got!”

Ossu! is now seen as a brash expression, but even though Goku is unrefined in social etiquette he isn’t trying to appear like a thug. He’s saying it in a positive way, with its original meaning.

He’s saying, “I’m here to do my best!”

What does Ora mean?

Let’s discuss how the Japanese talk for a moment, because that’s the only way ora (オラ) can be fully explained.

There are 3 main dialects in Japan. They are Hyōjungo (標準語), the standard Japanese spoken on TV and in anime. Kansai (関西), spoken in the western part of Japan, around Osaka. And Tōhoku (東北), spoken by farmers and country folk in the north.

japanese dialects north east map

Tōhoku spreads from slightly east of Tokyo all the way up to Hokkaido, and there are dozens of different sub-dialects spoken, all of which may be difficult for speakers of other dialects to understand because Tōhoku speakers tend to slur, draw out pronunciations, omit particles, or use completely different words. For example, instead of saying so desu for “that’s right,” they say nda wa. They also include things like the equivalent of “gotta,” “ain’t,” and “gonna.”

Goku speaks with a hokuetsu (北越) sub-dialect of Tōhoku from northeast Japan. He speaks with fairly standard grammar, but does not pronounce things in a standard way.

For example, rather than politely saying “watashi wa Goku” (私は悟空) (gender neutral introduction), or informally saying “boku wa Goku” (僕は悟空) (male specific introduction), he casually says “ora Goku!” (オラ悟空! or おら悟空!), in an extremely male and brash manner.

Goku is too naïve to know he speaks differently or impolitely, but the characters around him are more civilized, so they serve as a comedic foil to show Goku’s personality.

Masako Nozawa uses this to her advantage. She often adlibs and plays on Goku’s pronunciation of certain words and vowels. For example, when there’s “no problem” with a situation he says deijōbu instead of the standard daijōbu (大丈夫).

It also distinguishes Goku from his children who have a proper education. Chi-Chi and the Ox King have a Tōhoku dialect as well, but they speak with proper etiquette and raised their children to speak likewise. Goku wasn’t much of a teacher in that regard.

So what does ora mean? Well, ore (おれ or 俺) is an informal male introduction in standard Japanese. Oira (おら) is a rural and informal equivalent of ore, spoken by country folk, and ora (おら, or オラ) is the even more rural and even further northen equivalent. They are all considered somewhat rude, with ora being the most ‘hickish.’ Naturally that’s what Goku says.

Vegeta on the other hand, uses ore to talk down to his opponent, such as in Dragon Ball Z episode 156 when telling Cell, “Ore wa Supa Bejita da!!” (オレは超ベジータだ!!) translated as, “I am Super Vegeta!!”

There’s also something to be said about the phrase “Ora Goku!” when spoken together.

Since Goku’s name (悟空) means “Aware of Emptiness,” it has a humorous implication that his head is empty and he is a simple minded country boy. He’s saying to the audience, “Yep! I’m Empty!”

Ossu! Ora Goku!

ossu ora goku kanji

Now you understand that when Goku says “Ossu! Ora Goku!” he is showing the entire Japanese audience that he is an uncivilized, simple minded, and empty headed martial artist who will ‘give it his all!’

As a result, the audience instantly pegs Goku as a country boy without manners. But amazingly it doesn’t come off as rude or brutish. Rather, it’s innocent, adorable and uplifting. And that’s Goku’s charm.

The next time you hear Goku say, “Ossu! Ora Goku!” think back to all of this deeper contextual meaning. Then quickly accept and appreciate Goku for who he is.

And if you’re a martial artist or someone who looks to Goku for inspiration, then the next time you need motivation to overcome a challenge, say “Ossu!” and give it your all!

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