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Do you have a martial arts question you would like to have answered? We can't promise we have all the answers, but's staff and contributors will try to help. Just fill in the form at the bottom of this page.

Topic: "O Sensei"

I have heard some Japanese martial arts students address their teachers with "O Sensei," and also "Osu Sensei." Are the two forms of address derived from the same source?



Actually the two terms are quite different. "O'Sensei" means a venerable teacher while "Osu Sensei" is an acknowledgment, such as, "Yes Sensei", "I understand Sensei," "Okay Sensei", "I get it Sensei," or "Hello Sensei."

With "O'Sensei" it is a common misconception that the character for "O" is just the alternate pronunciation for the character "Dai," as in "Dai Sensei," which means "big Sensei." But this is not the case. The character for "O" (in O'Sensei) is another pronunciation for the character meaning "Okina" which means "old man," or "venerable." An old Japanese dictionary (gakken kanwa daijiten) says that it is a way of giving respect to an older man. In Japan it is used to follow a name, acting as a suffix. This is the same with such terms "san" and "Sensei." They follow a name.

In the west, however, most people do not say a name followed by a suffix, but instead lead with it. Thus we hear "Sensei" followed by a name and the use of "O'Sensei." The term, however, is rarely used. In the west it is most often associated with the founder of aikido Morihei Ueshiba, but Ueshiba actually copied it from his teacher (daito ryu) Sogaku Takeda.

Osu is a somewhat universal term that is commonly associated with many traditional dojos, especially those in karate. It is a rather course sounding word that is somewhat curt and almost abrasive to some Japanese ears outside the martial arts and other situations. The term is also sometimes used in the military as well as in sports activities, but probably not be used at home or in more formal occasions.

Tadashi Nakamura's book "Karate, Technique and Spirit" explains that "Osu" is a contraction of the phrase "Osu shinobu" and was used in ancient times as a greeting and salutation meaning patience. Thus, he suggests that it is an encouragement to others to persevere.

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