Japan is a country where ostensive humility prevails over and above over almost any other social norm. Japanese people appear to say some variant of the word ‘sorry’ at almost every juncture during their day—even when they have done nothing wrong!
However, it may surprise you to know that there is no one word used universally to mean ‘sorry’ in Japanese, and choosing which word to use for which occasion can be a bit of a minefield for foreign speakers at times. With giving an apology being such a virtuous act, it’s important to get it right.
Being a too-big-for-japan clumsy foreigner means that when I’m in Japan, I find myself apologising things left, right and center, meaning that I’m probably more acquainted than most with the myriad of different ways of saying ‘sorry’ in Japanese.
We’ll first look at every-day ways to say sorry in Japanese, then explore more formal apologies to strangers and in professional setting.
How do you say sorry in Japanese?
The word for ‘excuse me’ in Japanese is すみません, and it is used a lot. If you’re looking to ask somebody to move so you can get off a train, catch the attention of a cashier, or just do anything that involves a slight change to the circumstances of another against their will, you say すみません. The word comes from sumu (済む, to end), and literally means ‘it hasn’t ended’, meaning that you are indebted for your interlocutor’s forgiveness or kindness.
すみません。 Sumimasen. Excuse me.
You can use すみません when you didn’t quite catch what somebody said, just like we would say ‘sorry’ in English.
すみません、もう一度？ Sumimasen, mou ichido? I’m sorry, once more?
It’s hard to explain quite how much you’re going to hear すみません when you listen to Japanese people interact. I even caught my friend say すみません when the toll road attendant gave her back her change, with absolutely nothing to apologise for. If in doubt, just say すみません when interacting with shop staff, station attendants and strangers, and you’ll probably not be saying it enough. It can mean anything from ‘sorry’ to ‘excuse me’ to ‘thank you’, so you’re rarely going to sound impolite by saying it at any occasion.
That said, there are some more nuanced and particular uses of this word, that are actually used when apologising.
If you want to apologise for something, then you can use the て-form of the verb or で with nouns.
遅れてすみません。 おくれてすみません。 Okurete sumimasen. Sorry for being late. 返事を出さないでいてすみませんでした。 へんじをでさせないでいてすみませんでした。 Henji wo desasenaideit esumimasendeshita. Sorry I couldn’t have replied.
すみません is great as it can even be used for formal, business scenario Japanese.
お話の途中ですみません。 おはなしのとちゅうですみません。 Sorry for interrupting your conversation. 遅刻してすみません。 ちこくしてすみません I’m sorry for being late.
The Japanese ‘sorry’
Look up ‘sorry’ in a good Japanese dictionary, and you’ll probably see ごめんなさい as the first entry. This is a pretty good starting point for when you actually want to say ‘sorry’ to somebody. You’ve borrowed somebody’s pen, and then lost it—the first thing you’re going to want to say is ごめんなさい. Trodden on somebody’s foot? ごめんなさい should be your instinctive reaction.
あ、ごめんなさい。大丈夫ですか？ あ、ごめんなさい。だいじょうぶですか？ Ah, I’m sorry. Are you okay?
You can strengthen this with 本当に (ほんとうに), meaning ‘really’ or ‘truly’.
当にごめんなさい。痛いですか？ ほんとうにごめんなさい。いたいですか？ I’m really sorry. Does it hurt?
However, ごめんなさい comes with a caveat, that it’s not really considered to be formal. In day-to-day situations it’s a safe bet, but try and use something else if you’re speaking to a sennpai (先輩, senior at work or school) and in any kind of formal writing.
If you’re on very good terms with somebody, and you don’t have that much cause for apology, you can shorten this word to the much more casual ごめん, or more likely ごめんね. If you’re five minutes late for meeting somebody at a station, you could probably apologise this way.
待たせてごめんね、電車が５分に遅れていた！ またせてごめんね、でんしゃがごふんにおくれていた！ “Sorry to keep you waiting—the train was five minutes late!”
Advanced Japanese apologies
The expressions we looked at above, although they could be used in some more formal contexts, were really best suited for every-day ‘low level’ apologies, and ‘apologies’ that were said as a matter of course and custom. However, when speaking Japanese it is particularly important to apologise in the right way in professional contexts.
Photo by kumozo
Let’s take a look at some expressions and vocabulary that you would normally hear in a more formal setting or with strangers.
“I’m being rude”
This expression, just like すみません is an absolute gem if you want to sound really Japanese by apologising without having done anything wrong: 失礼します (しつれいします, I’m being rude). A good translation is probably ‘excuse me’, as it’s used in instances when you’re seen to be causing a minor nuisance to somebody else.
When walking into a room where there is some activity going on, a weak under-the-breath 失礼します is pretty common, and walking out of a room after having completed some activity, whilst leaving others in the room (such as if you’re having to leave a meeting early) is always preceded with a sincere looking 失礼します and bow.
A similar expression is お邪魔します (おじゃまします, excuse me for disturbing you). The two are largely interchangeable but お邪魔します can sound a little softer which makes it more popular in informal situations. In general, it’s best to use 失礼します in business/formal situations (e.g., when entering someone else’s office), and お邪魔します in more private situations, such as when visiting a friend’s house.
Note that when used right before leaving, 失礼します remains in the present tense, whereas お邪魔します changes to お邪魔しました.
Don’t be afraid to say 失礼します when in public, such as taking a suitcase onto a train, or even passing through people. I have also heard it said when people are handing money to shopkeepers, but it seems that it may come across as a little peculiar when foreign people say it.
Politeness levels in business Japanese
A little more formal
So far we have covered ways of apologising for little mistakes and minor inconveniences. However, it is useful to know how to actually apologise for something relatively serious should the need arise.
A good starting point is 申し訳ない (もうしわけない, It’s inexcusable）which of course is usually used in the polite Vます form.
申し訳ありません もうしわけありません。 I’m very sorry.
To say what you are sorry for, use the Vて form of a verb, or で before a noun.
不注意で本当に申し訳ありません。 ふちゅういでほんとうにもうしわけありません。 I’m truly sorry for not taking proper care.
This is also used by those in the service industry in this kind of fashion:
I’m very sorry for making you wait for so long.
Don’t forget that すみません is still used in formal situations, we just need to dress it up a little. For example, for excusing yourself from causing somebody trouble, you can use the word menndou (面倒, trouble, difficulty) preceded by the honorific ご.
ご面倒を掛けてすみません。 ごめんどうをかけてすみません。 Sorry for causing you trouble.
Last but not least, you can make 失礼します and お邪魔します more formal by changing them to 失礼いたします and お邪魔いたします respectively.
Saying that you regret something is a slightly more nuanced way of apologising, so should be approached with care if you’re seeking to show remorse to somebody.
後悔しています。 こうかいしています。 I regret what I did. パーティーに行かなかったことを後悔していました。 パーティーにいかなかったことをこうかいしていました。 I was sorry (I feel bad) that I didn’t go to the party.
A note about bowing
With almost all of these expressions, a bow is a must. Little apologies as a matter of formality are accompanied with a little bow of the head. Sincere apologies will express remorsefulness with a solemn deep and long-lasting bow.
A courier driver who delivered my suitcase after it was delayed at the airport went as far as kneeling on the floor and bending over for a long and awkward bow. I think he used all of the above phrases three or four times before leaving me with my bag. Apologising is a big deal in Japan.