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!
Photo by elmarte74
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. In the first of these two posts, we’ll look at some every-day ways to say sorry, and in part two we’ll explore the more formal ways to apologise.
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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.
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.
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.
Sorry for being late.
Sorry I couldn’t have replied.
すみません is great as it can even be used for formal, business scenario Japanese.
Sorry for interrupting your conversation.
I’m sorry for being late.
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.
Ah, I’m sorry. Are you okay?
You can strengthen this with 本当に (ほんとうに), meaning ‘really’ or ‘truly’.
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.
“Sorry to keep you waiting – the train was five minutes late!”