How to Say “I’m Sorry” in Japanese: Sumimasen, Gomenasai and 14 More

Last Updated on 11.10.2022 by Coto Japanese Language School

Apologizing in Japan is more than just saying you’re sorry. You’ll hear a variety of “I’m sorry” in many situations, some of which should seemingly be “Thank you”. Take this scenario, for example: You’re in an elevator that’s closing its doors. You saw a Japanese man rushing. As an act of courtesy, you open the automatic door just in time for him to slide into the elevator. He then says: 

“すみません!ありがとうございます。”
Sumimasen! Arigatou gozaimasu. 

This statement comes of confusing for you — and probably a lot of us who are not familiar with Japanese culture. The man isn’t doing anything blatantly wrong, so why did he say sumimasen (the most basic form of apology in Japanese) first and arigatougozaimasu (thank you) the second?

This is because beyond apologizing for something you actually do wrong, the act of saying sorry is closely tied to showing respect, which is an important virtue in Japanese society. 

The Japanese language has different pronouns and verb forms depending on the relationship between the speaker and the listener. These range from very friendly to those expressing the utmost form of respect. It’s no wonder that there are also multiple ways to apologize in Japanese and layers to saying sorry in Japanese. In this article, we’ll look at the many ways to say sorry in Japanese. 

Before we go further into the article, note that this article will use hiragana, so prior knowledge of them is a must. If you’re still learning them, don’t worry. Take a look at our hiragana chart to review them.

Jump to:

The Culture of Apologizing in Japanese Society
When Do I Need to Apologize in Japan?
How to Apologize in Japanese: Everyday Use and Casual
How to Apologize in Japanese: Serious and Formal Apology
Other Variations of “I’m Sorry” in Japanese
Conclusion

The Culture of Apologizing in Japanese Society

Japanese people are known for their collectiveness. Even when we know each individual is born different and with a unique set of personalities, a major element in Japanese culture is that the group comes before the individual. Because of this, harmony inside the group — which, in this case, is a society in general — should be maintained as much as possible. 

 Ever heard of the word meiwaku (迷惑)? “Meiwaku” can be translated in several ways: trouble, annoyance and annoying. The word’s meaning is strong, but “nuisance” is probably the closest word in English for meiwaku.

In Japan, it’s expected to avoid causing meiwaku to others is one of the bases of Japanese politeness in public spaces. You can see it from small things, like people getting off their phone call as soon as they go on public transport. 

Being polite and courteous is the key to keeping social harmony intact in Japan. Along the way, people make “mistakes”. 

Let’s revisit the first scenario above. So why did the man say sumimasen?

This is because beyond saying “thank you”, “sumimasen” is used to acknowledge the trouble someone has gone through for you. In this case, the man is indicating to you, “I’m sorry I’ve made you go the trouble of waiting for me.” There’s both an apologetic and grateful undertone to this expression. 

In other words, expect Japanese people t say sorry for even the smallest inconvenience. It lets others know that you are reflecting on what went wrong, and not just uttering the required phrases.

how to apologize in japanese

When Do I Need to Apologize in Japan?

1. When You Made  a Mistake

This is obvious, but many of us might feign ignorance when we make a small mistake. It’s important to know that no matter how small, you need to give a genuine apology. Using respectful or humble Japanese form in particular when saying sorry will come across as more intense. 

2. When You’re Causing “Inconvenience”

When someone does a favor for you, like holding a door open and working an hour late to help you, it’s considered polite to “apologize” for causing an inconvenience. 

3. When You Want to Show Appreciation

A lot of times, it’s acceptable — encouraged, even — to apologize to someone as a thankful gesture. It’s a way to show appreciation for someone who put thought and effort into you. Think of it like saying, “I’m sorry you have to go all this way for me.” 

How to Apologize in Japanese: Everyday Use and Casual

When you accidentally step on your friend’s foot, we don’t expect you to do a full 90-degree bow and use very formal Japanese to apologize. It’s important to know that the Japanese language has several levels of formality, from casual to super polite. This all depends on who you’re talking to and the social context. 

When you want to make a casual apology, we recommend using a casual Japanese form, or 丁寧語 (teinieigo). These versions of “I’m sorry” are more commonly used for everyday situations and small inconveniences.

For a deep dive into the difference between keigo (polite) and tameguchi (casual), head to our article here.

1. ごめんなさい (gomennasai): Sorry

The most common and straightforward way to apologize in Japanese comes in a lot of variations. Either way, be careful not to use it when you’re trying to apologize to your boss or superiors. While in English, there’s only one “sorry”, think of gomenasai as the most casual apology that translates directly to, well, sorry. If you want to add more sincerity, you can add the Japanese adverb 本当に:

本当にごめんなさい。
Hontou ni gomennasai.
I am so sorry. 

私のせいで、ごめんなさい。
Watashi no sei de, gomennasai.
It was my fault, I’m sorry. 

2. ごめんね (gomen ne): Sorry, man. 

Now, this word is actually the shortened version of gomennasai, but you really need to use it with great caution. There’s a slightly playful and casual undertone when you use this. Depending on the situation too, it minimizes the intensity of your apology, so you shouldn’t use the phrase in a serious situation. You can say this when you bump on your friend or use their pen by mistake, but not when you accidentally kick a ball through your neighbor’s window. 

ペン落としちゃった! ごめんね!
Pen otoshichatta! Gomen ne!
I dropped (your) pen! Sorry, man!

Note: In casual conversations among friends, Japanese people usually omit particles like を or は. 

3. すみません (sumimasen): Excuse me

People usually rotate between sumimasen and gommenasai, so what’s the difference? ごめんなさい (gomennasai) is strictly used to apologize for something you did wrong. すみません (sumimasen) is used to apologize, too, but the word itself is so much more versatile. In fact, sumimasen can be used for non-apologetic situations, like telling someone you’re passing by or letting them go ahead first when entering a room.

すみません、後ろに通ります。
Sumimasen, ushiro ni toorimasu.
Excuse me, I’m passing from behind.

すみません、どうぞ。
Sumimasen, douzo.
Excuse me, go ahead. 

So while すみません often seems interchangeable with ごめんなさい, the prior is a broader expression. In terms of nuance, gomennasai has a slightly more apologetic tone to it. 

4. 悪い (warui):  My bad.

Similar to gomen ne that we discussed above, 悪い (warui) is another casual way to say sorry in Japanese. You’re not directly apologizing. Rather, you’re acknowledging you did something wrong.

You should only use warui to apologize to friends and peers for non-serious matters. Think of this as slang words between two very good friends. 

悪い悪い!
Warui warui!
My bad!

How to Apologize in Japanese: Serious and Formal Apology

Stepping on your friend’s foot is one thing, but sending the wrong email draft to your Japanese boss is another thing. In this scenario, you want to express how deeply sorry you are. Saying sorry in Japanese humble form will help intensify your apology. 

Remember that when you use these phrases in a casual context, you’ll come across as sounding stiff or, worse, trying too hard. Only save these apologies for moments where you really mess up badly. 

1. 申し訳ございません (moushi wake gozaimasen): What I did was inexcusable.

申し訳ございません (moushi wake gozaimasen) is perhaps the humblest and most formal way to say sorry in Japan. It literally means, “There is no excuse.”

There are other variations of moushi wake gozaimasen, depending on the level of formality you’d like to achieve. For example, ございません is the most polite form of ありません, so you can replace it when you feel like using gozaimasen feels too stiff.

申訳わけありません。
Moushi wake arimasen. 

Other variations include:

大変申訳わけありませんでした.
Taihen moushi wake arimasen deshita. 

申し訳ない.
Moushi wake nai.
I’m sorry!

The word moushi wake nai is the same, but it’s a slightly more casual form than using ございません or ありません. You can use it when you’re trying to make a sincere (but still friendly) apology to your friends. 

2. ご迷惑をかけてすみません (gomeiwaku o kakete sumimasen): I’m sorry to have caused you trouble. 

The Japanese word meiwaku can be built into an apology phrase in the event you have created an issue or trouble with someone. In the business context, this means in the event when you’re causing the slightest inconvenience to the other party. This phrase means, “I am deeply sorry to have caused you trouble.”

ご迷惑をおかけして申し訳ございません。
Go meiwaku o okake shite moushi wake gozaimasen.
I’m sorry for this inconvenience.

The phrase above is a combination of ご迷惑 and 申し訳ございません, which further intensify the apology. It is commonly used as a formal greeting in emails and announcements. Other variations include:

ご迷惑をかけてすみません。
Gomeiwaku o kakete sumimasen.

ご迷惑めいわくをかけてごめんなさい。
Gomeiwaku o kakete gomennasai. 

3. 恐れ入ります (Osoreirimasu): I’m sorry

Similar to sumimasen,  恐れ入ります (Osoreirimasu) isn’t used as an actual apology, but as a way to excuse yourself. However, osoreirimasu is a more polite and formal way to say sumimasen.

Usually, the phrase 恐れ入ります (Osoreirimasu) is followed by another sentence, connected by が to show contrast.

恐れ入りますが、おかわりを頂けますか?
Osore irimasu ga, okawari o itadakemasuka?
Excuse me, but can I have another serving? 

4. 謝罪いたします (shazai ita shimasu):  I apologize

This is a formal way of apologizing. You’ll see politicians and celebrities saying this when they did something scandalous or needed to make a public apology. Sometimes, this is followed by a 90-degree bow.

5. ご面倒をお掛けして、すみません (gomendou o okakeshite, sumimasen): I’m sorry for the trouble

Similar to 迷惑, this variation of Japanese apology isn’t used when you’re actually begging for forgiveness. Instead, it’s a way to thank someone for helping you. This is a formality when someone does something for you. 

6. お詫び申し上げます (Owabi moushi agemasu):  I apologize.

The word お詫び (owabi) means sorry. This phrase is among the other things Japanese public figure says when they want to apologize to the public. Unlike 申訳わけありません (owabi moushi agemasu), お詫び申し上げます is a strictly formal form, and there’s no way to make it casual. 

Fun fact: it’s the way of apologizing used by Prime Minister Murayama in his infamous apology speech on behalf of Japan for their involvement in World War II. 

There are alterations to change the level of humility.

お詫びいたします
Owabi ita shimasu.
I apologize. 

7. 謝罪いたします (shazai itashimasu): I apologize

More commonly used in written form rather than speech, you should reserve this way of saying “I’m sorry” in Japanese for written statements in emails or letters to work, school or other formal recipients. It’s also quite a sincere apology.

The word shazai means ‘apology’, and itashimasu is the Japanese humble form of suru. This phrase translates translate to “I’m sorry for my actions.”

8. お許しください (o yurushi kudasai): Please forgive me.

If you’re already familiar with the Japanese language, kudasai is used to make a request. The apology using お許しください (o yurushi kudasai) literally means, Please forgive me in Japanese.

This can be both a formal and informal way to say sorry. If you want to use it to apologize to a friend or peer, you would say 許してください (yurushite kudasai). 

9. 反省しております (hansei shite orimasu): I regret (what I have done)

The word 反省 means regret, and しております  is the humble form of ~ている. Hansei can also be replaced by 後悔, but both are accepted as a heartfelt way to say sorry in Japanese: by showing regret.  The phrases 反省しております (hansei shite orimasu) and 後悔しております (koukai shite orimasu) are heartfelt but polite ways to say sorry in Japanese. 

You can switch the しております with しています to make the phrase less formal,  but it’s unlikely you’ll use it in everyday situations. 

10. 勘弁してください (かんべんして ください): Please show me mercy

This one might sound funny. No one in modern-day asks someone to show “mercy” when they did something wrong unless they’re being threatened. The word kanben (勘弁) means ‘forgiveness’ or ‘pardon’, but it’s more intense than  許して (yurushite). 

However, you’ve probably heard this in anime or drama. Don’t use it for half-urgent situations, because you might sound like you’re trying too hard to apologize. 

11. 合わせる顔がない (あわせる かおが ない) — I cannot face you

This can also be read as “I am too embarrassed to face you.”

The expression can be used interchangeably with 弁解の余地がない but it’s mostly used when apologizing via text or email, hence the “too embarrassed to face you” meaning.

Other Variations of “I’m Sorry” in Japanese

By now, you’re probably tired of us mentioning, “This phrase is not used to actually apology.” In fact, most of the time you hear someone apologize in Japanese is unnecessary as they’re not making a mistake of any sort.

Granted, the Japanese culture places great importance on avoiding inconvenience. Here is a couple of other ‘apology’ that are considered polite to use as part of social etiquette.  

1. 失礼します  (shitsurei shimasu): Pardon me

The phrase “ 失礼します  (shitsurei shimasu)” is used in a variety of context, although the meaning strays from its use. The expression literally translates to “I’m being rude.” 失礼 means rude or unpolite. 

You don’t say this when you are in the wrong. Shitsurei shimasu is a form of apology when you’re trying to be polite or excuse yourself. For example, when you enter a room you will knock and say “失礼します” to apologize for the interruption. If you have to answer an important phone call during a meeting or dinner, you will excuse yourself with 失礼します. 

If you do want to use this phrase to say sorry, it’s best to use it in the past tense: shitsurei shimashita. 

この間は、失礼しました.
Kono aida wa, shitsurei shimashita.
I am sorry for the other day.

Say you bumped into a coworker at the office that you’re unfamiliar with and knock the binder right out of his arms. While helping him pick it up, you’d say これは失礼しました.

An interesting use of失礼しました is more commonly heard in the office situation, when you’re going inside the office and when you’re leaving your workplace. When you finish your tasks early, leaving your co-workers behind, you say:

お先に失礼します。
Osaki ni shitsureishimasu!
Sorry for leaving before everyone else!

For a more in-depth explanation of the Japanese business お先に失礼します (osaki ni shitsurei shimasu), head to this article. 

2. お邪魔します(Ojama shimasu): Pardon the intrusion.

お邪魔します has a similar meaning with shitsurei shimasu, in the sense that both are statements of your action rather than an apology request. The word 邪魔 means “hindrance” or “obstacle”.  お邪魔します literally means, “I am intruding”, but in many contexts, this is interpreted as “Forgive me for intruding.”

When do you use ojama shimasu? Japanese people use it when they are visiting another person’s home or office room. When you’re leaving the room, you can also use its past tense. 

お邪魔しました.
Ojama shimashita. 
Pardon me for intruding (before).

Another way of reading this is as “Excuse me for disturbing you” or “Sorry for interrupting you.” It can also be used when calling someone on the phone.

Conclusion

Alright! This guide is longer than we expected, but we just want to make sure we have everything covered. Now that you know the basics of apologizing in Japanese, make sure you’re ready for the appropriate response the next time you do something wrong — or right. 

Some of these will be more useful than others, like sumimasen, shitsurei shimasu and gomennasai. They’re Japanese apologies you’ll encounter almost every day in Japan. In special cases, you’ll be thankful you know what 申し訳ございません (moushi wake gozaimasen) means when you did something wrong at work. 

There’s a lot more to the list on how to say “I’m sorry” in Japanese. Like Japanese culture, we’re just scraping the surface. Learning the Japanese language that you can actually use in real life can be tricky. If you want to earn more, Coto Academy offers lessons from beginner to advanced.

If you are interested in learning with us, contact us here or fill out the application form.


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