Apologizing in Japanese – すみません (Sumimasen), I'm Sorry!


Do you know how to apologize in Japanese correctly? 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.

The Ubiquitous すみません (Sumimasen)
Casual Apologies
Formal Apologies

The Ubiquitous すみません (Sumimasen)

  • すみません
  • すみませんでした

Casual Apologies

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)
  • ごめんなさい
  • わたしのせいで、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.

  • わるわる
  • わるかった

Formal Apologies

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.”

  • もうわけありません / ございません
  • もうわけありませんでした/ ございませんでした
  • 大変申たいへんもうわけありません/ ございません
  • 大変申たいへんもうわけありませんでした/ 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.

  • 失礼しつれいしました/いたしました
  • 失礼しつれい (*women should avoid using this word)
  • このあいだは、失礼しつれいしました: “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.”

  • 迷惑めいわくをかけてすみません/すみませんでした
  • 迷惑めいわくをかけてごめんね/ごめんなさい

If someone says “sumimasen” you can reply with “daijoubu“!
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