Apologizing in Japanese – すみません (Sumimasen), I’m Sorry!
The Ubiquitous すみません (Sumimasen)
Do you know how to apologize correctly in Japanese? Apologizing is an important part of the Japanese culture, and it’s something that our students always notice and ask about when they come to Japan. You will often see Japanese people saying sumimasen and bowing repeatedly, and you’ll hear it many times throughout your time in Japan.
In the west, an apology means a feeling of regret and an acknowledgment of a failure, but in Japan, an apology is a positive attitude and a synonym of responsibility as humility is highly valued by Japanese people. The first word you’ll learn in Japanese for apologizing or saying “excuse me” is sumimasen. It’s one of the most useful words for Japanese learners because it’s used in a variety of situations.
For example, sumimasen can be used when you bump into someone, but you can also use sumimasen to say “thank you” or to request something from a person. When apologizing for something that happened in the past, you’ll add deshita.
A casual way to apologize is with the use of gomen. You can make this phrase more polite by saying gomen nasai.
Here are some variations:
- ごめん (*casual)
- ごめんね (*casual, a bit childish)
- 私のせいで、ごめんなさい It was my fault, I am sorry.
Between very good friends, Japanese people will use slang: warui warui or warukatta. Warui means “bad”, which can be translated to “my bad” in English.
There are many formal ways to apologize in Japanese using variations of moushi wake arimasen “I am so sorry.” It’s quite formal, so use it for customers or in business situations. To be more polite, use gozaimasen instead of arimasen, and add deshita. In the following examples, you’re saying “I am deeply sorry.”
- 申し訳ありません / ございません
- 申し訳ありませんでした/ ございませんでした
- 大変申し訳ありません/ ございません
- 大変申し訳ありませんでした/ ございませんでした
Among the formal variations of Japanese apologies, you will find shitsurei shimashita/itashimashita. It’s a bit more vague as compaed to moushi wake arimasen since the latter clearly shows the remorse of the person apologizing. Men would typically use shitsurei when speaking casually.
- 失礼 (*women should avoid using this word)
- この間は、失礼しました: “I am sorry for the other day”
The Japanese word for “trouble” is meiwaku, and this can be built into an apology phrase in the event you have created an issue or trouble with someone. These variations all mean “I am very/deeply sorry to have caused you trouble.”
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