Isabelle Aubert from UCSD asks the following question:
“Hum, by the way, can you please remind me what “OSS” exactly stands for. I know Sensei Neville mentioned it to us at one point but it did not register in my long-term memory!”
When I asked Mr. Miyaji about this 25 years ago I received the following answer; Hmm? I don’t really know.”
A few days later I got a letter from him indicating that he believed that Oss was an abbreviation of the Japanese term “onegaiishimasu.” This term is a middle polite way to say “Let’s train.”
“Oneigai” is a request or wish. “Ishimasu” is a middle polite conjugation. Hence the meaning gets close to “If I may request the honor of a lesson with you.” You may note that the honor portion is not present in the two portions I have translated. It is there by virtue of the middle polite conjugation in the Japanese language. If there were no honor involved the request would not have this conjugation but a more terse conjugation, “oneigaisu.” You may also note that it is not a question. If it were a question it would be “oneigaishimasu ka?” It is a statement, middle polite, requesting a lesson, training, or demonstration. Hence, most karate-ka interpret it as a simple, “let’s train.” Unfortunately in the figurative translation there is no politeness indicated as there is in the Japanese.
I tried to discourage the use of Oss for years in Aoinagi Karate. I required the more formal Japanese term “Hai,” which means “yes.” Many martial arts including kendo, naginata and juijutsu use Hai and have never used “Oss.” We came to use Oss because many of my students trained at Mr. Miyaji’s dojo and heard the “Oss” of Mr. Castro and others. The usage slipped into Aoinagi.
Oss is not used in all dojo. Mr. Kim’s dojo does not use Oss. Mr. Kotaka’s dojo does not use Oss. Mr. Kahalekulu’s dojo did not use Oss. Mr. Saito’s dojo does not use Oss.
Mr. Miyaji’s dojo uses Oss.
It is meant as a spirit builder. If it works even a little it is a good thing. I accept the usage now and have even used it myself in Shotokan trainings in an effort to build my spirit there and the spirit of others. By no means is it universal in karate, and it is never heard in other martial arts (with the exception of the kobudo). It is just one of those peculiar little things that has taken on. If it helps build spirit, use it.