The Japanese people have a reputation for being extremely polite and this is largely reflected in their language. In particular, there are many different apologies you can use, and they all depend on the situation. Today I’ll explain how to say sorry in Japanese.
There are two primary reasons why it is extremely useful to learn and memorize these different words and phrases.
The first one is so that you know which word to use when you feel the need to say sorry to someone else, and in a variety of different situations.
The other one is so that you can understand what the other person is saying to YOU whenever the shoe is on the other foot, and they feel bad about something that they’ve done.
Let’s start right away with the most common one.
The Common Way To Say Sorry In Japanese
The most common way to say sorry in Japanese is with the word すみません sumimasen.
This word can actually mean several different things like “excuse me” or even “thank you” depending on the situation that it is used in, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll just stick to contexts where it means “sorry.”
This form of the word is typically used in situations where you feel that you have inconvenienced someone.
This could be if you accidentally stepped on their foot while wading through a crowd, or it could also be when they ask you for some sort of assistance and you are unable to help them out.
If you are in Japan and you begin talking to a native in English, you might hear this word used if the other person wants to tell you that they don’t understand what you’re saying.
- すみません、分かりません。 (sumimasen, wakarimasen.)
Sorry, I don’t understand (what you’re saying).
Another tip is to ask yourself “can I say ‘excuse me’ in this situation instead of ‘sorry’?”
If you find that the answer is yes, then you will be OK using it.
- すみません、初めてなんですが… (sumimasen, hajimete nan desu ga…)
Excuse me (sorry), this is my first time (that’s why I’m not good at it)….
Since this word gets used a lot in Japanese, it is natural that it would have some phonetic variations for when people want to express different emotion or when they are speaking quickly.
Don’t be surprised when a person says すみませーん sumimaseeen when they feel like a dummy after opening YOUR Christmas present by mistake.
Or instead of elongating a vowel, you might hear the word with a consonant dropped. In casual conversations it is pretty common to hear すいません suimasen which has no “m” sound in it at all.
Or they could replace the み from the standard version of the word with a ん to make すんません sunmasen. This word kind of sounds like they are mumbling, which might be the meek reply used if they are getting chewed out or something.
Finally, let’s end it off with a little Kansai dialect and すんまへん sunmahen!
The Manly Version Of The Same Word
You may have noticed that the first word I covered was written entirely in hiragana. This is normally how the word is written, but there actually is a kanji that can be used: 済みません.
The kanji 済 means “excusable” and if you think a little about the grammar used in the last phrase (negative, present tense) you can see that the person using the phrase is saying that what they have done is “in-excusable” and thereby taking responsibility for it.
Well, the casual form of this word 済まない sumanai is used a lot in shows or anime when a male character apologizes.
It means the same thing as すいません but it brings with it certain nuances, one of which I’ve mentioned (normally used by dudes) and the other feeling is that of a casual situation.
There is even a shorter, call it an abbreviated version of this word. It is 済まん suman which has simply replaced ない with ん. This is actually a pretty common occurrence in Japanese.
What’s interesting is when you’re watching an anime and a female character says sorry with this word. For example, Sagiri Ameno from Yuragi-sou no Yuuna-san uses 済まない, which makes her seem kind of rough and unfeminine.
When You Know That You’re In The Wrong
I think that even though the first word we went over is the used the most, this next word is actually the one that most foreigners use when they want to ask for the other person’s forgiveness.
The full version of the phrase is ごめんなさい gomen nasai which can be shortened to just ごめん gomen when talking with friends, or even ごめんね gomen ne when it’s from a female speaker.
This one is usually used when you feel like you’ve done something wrong, and you’ve hurt the other person in someway.
For example, if you broke your promise to them, or if you crashed their car the one time they let you borrow it. It’s got more gravity to it than すいません, so knowing both words and when to switch between them is very useful.
- 蛇喰さん、本当にごめんなさい！ (Jabami-san, hontō ni gomen nasai!)
Ms. Jabami, I’m truly sorry for what I’ve done!
Something that is interesting is the kanji that can be used for this phrase: 御免なさい.
The first part 御 means “honorable” and is added onto many Japanese words in order to make them more polite. Sometimes the reading of the kanji is “go” (like in this case) and other times it is “o” like in 御茶 ocha for the word “tea.”
The second part of it is 免 which means “excuse.”
Hmm… “honorable excuse”? Sounds pretty good to me!
The Super Polite Way To Apologize
Sometimes it can be frustrating to learn Japanese on your own. I’m talking about those times when you run into a new word, and you put it into a dictionary that only barely helps you understand it more.
For example, the expression 申し訳ありません mōshi wake arimasen is a super long phrase that gets translated as “sorry” in English.
But what’s going on here? Haven’t we already gone over a ton of other words that mean the exact same thing? Yep, that’s what I was thinking when I first learned this word.
This is just one of those situations where English has no true equivalent for the Japanese word.
The secret to this phrase is that it is formal and is used in situations like the workplace when you need to apologize to your boss, your co-workers, a customer, and so on.
Think of 申し訳ありません as the “big apology” when you’ve messed up so badly that you “have no excuse” for what you’ve done.
What’s interesting is that there is actually a more casual version of this phrase, which is 申し訳ない mōshi wake nai.
This would be a stronger way to apologize to your friend than ごめんなさい from the last section.
The Casual Way, Like Saying “my bad” In English
There was a while when I was growing up when everyone sad “my bad” when they felt like they made a blunder.
It got pretty out of hand for a while there, and now no one uses it anymore (except for me *wink*).
In Japanese, there is also a pretty chill word that you can use in casual situations. The word is 悪い warui which literally means “bad” in Japanese.
I would not recommend you use this word when meeting your Japanese girlfriend’s / boyfriend’s parents for the first time, as it’s probably best to use すみません in polite contexts.
Usually 悪い is used between friends, but to be honest I hear it more from the younger generation. You know how that ol’ ditty goes.
When Doing Business With Others
There is a phrase that you will sometimes hear used in the office or other business formal situations.
The phrase is 恐れ入ります osore irimasu and you can think of it as the super formal version of すいません. It can be used in the same sorts of situations.
I good way to think of it might be the English phrase “beg your pardon, sir/madam.”
- 恐れ入りますが満室でございます。 (osore irimasu ga manshitsu de gozaimasu)
I beg your pardon, but we’re fully booked (this evening).
Or perhaps you are fairly new at your job and you need to stop the president of the company to ask a question.
- あ、恐れ入りますが… (a, osore irimasu ga…)
Ah, I’m sorry to trouble you but…
It’s probably not something you will run into a lot if you’re just getting started with Japanese, but once you get into the more advanced stuff it’s good to know.
In Case You Made Someone Wait A While
I wanted to go over one last phrase before we ended this lesson.
This one is お待たせしました o matase shimashita and it means “sorry for keeping you waiting” in Japanese.
This is a super common phrase that is used when you meet up with someone at a location, and they are already there waiting for you.
Even if a Japanese person arrived on time, you would probably still hear them use this particular phrase as a way of acknowledging the other person.
If they are close friends, then the casual version of the word おまたせ omatase can be used instead.
What other Japanese apologies have you heard? Have you used any of these ones yourself?
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: