How to say “Sorry” in Japanese

Do you know there are so many ways to say “sorry” in Japanese? When start to learn Japanese, always practical phrase like “Greetings” and “Thank you” are picked up, however

“Sorry” becomes even more important when it comes to good communication in a foreign culture which often has different customs and values from your original culture.

Thus, “sorry” in studying Japanese is one of the most vital things you’ll learn. there are also different ways of the apology, depending on the situation.

How to say sorry in Japanese has variations, both formal and informal, and in the severity of what you’re apologizing for and who you’re apologizing to.

Japanese Apology from the Cultural Perspective

Japanese people use “Sorry” so often. Why is it so?

It is come from cultural background. Japanese people value harmony with others more than individuals in communication. It is unique cultural perspective compared to other countries.

Thus, Japanese people would tend to apologize just to smooth over a relationship, even if he or she had nothing to do with what caused the issue in the first place.

an English “sorry” and a Japanese “sorry” might not mean the same thing, and the speaker’s cultural context will need to be considered before his/her apology can be understood as intended.

the Japanese apologize thoughtfully yet routinely, as seen in their multiple, situation-dependent expressions.

“I’m Sorry” in Japanese — Formal

“Sumimasen” すみません

It is the most common word to say sorry in Japanese. There are many ways to use it and some meanings depend on the situation.

“Sumimasen” uses for when apologizing, say thank you, calling someone, and asking”

When apologizing

(Example 1) I’m sorry for being late.

(Example 2) When you hit or step on your foot.

 Oh, I am sorry.

When saying thank you - Japanese people are thankful and grateful

Use “Sumimasen”

When calling someone

(Example 1)  Excuse me, do you have a menu?

(Example 2)  Excuse me, please give me water.

Often used in restaurants, department stores, post offices, banks, etc.

When asking – When you have something to ask someone

(Example)  Excuse me, but could you take some soy sauce?

“I’m sorry, but … (words of request) …”

“Gomen nasai” ごめんなさい

It is often used with family and close friends.

When you are late for the promised time (Example 1)

There is also courtesy to close friends, you should use “Gomen nasai “.

“Moushiwake arimasen” 申し訳ありません

It is more formal way to say “Sorry” in Japanese, and often using in business situation.

The word “Moushi” in “Moushiwake arimasen” means “to say”.

in short,

“Moushiwake arimasen” means “There is nothing to say”

“Everything is wrong with me, and I can’t make up for it.”

It is the highest apology.

“I’m Sorry” in Japanese — Informal

“Gomen/Gmenne/Gomenyo” ごめん/ ごめんね/ ごめんよ

It is the most common word for casual “Sorry” in Japanese. It is casual word of “Gomennasai”

In casual communication with Friends and Family, we use these, and to put “Ne” or “Yo”, it will be more like friendly conversation.

“Moushiwakenai”  申し訳ない

It is casual word of “Moushiwake arimasen”.

It is used in more casual situation in Business or daily life. It tends to be used by Boss to employee, or

Senior to Junior.

“Warui” わるい My bad

It is always used by man between friends or family conversation. It means also thank you.

Difference between common Japanese apology phrases like “Sumimasen” and “Gomen nasai”

The most common phrases in Japanese “Sorry” are “Sumimasen” and “Gomen nasai”.

Sumimasen vs. Gomen nasai is a bit nuanced, and they are often used interchangeably.

But the main point is whether or not apologize on the spot, so serious or not so serious

“Get the permission of the others and that’s it.”

Apologize on the spot →Use “Gomen nasai”

Do not apologize on the spot →Use “Sumimasen”

It is a proper use.

Why do we use different way like it?

It is coming from Historical Etymology of “I’m sorry”

“Goemen nasai” is written in Chinese characters as “御免なさい”.

If you break this word down,

“Go” … Prefix for politeness   ”Exemption” … permission, forgiveness

“Do” … the meaning of the command (do)

In other words, “Gomen nasai” meant the command “Forgive me.”

However, nowadays “Gomen nasai” has no meaning of an order and is used to ask for the forgiveness of the other people.

It still means “Get the permission of the others and that is end of matter.”

“Sumimasen” is written in Chinese characters as “済みません”

The word “Sumi 済み” means “things are over”. (For example, work is done) and also, “Feelings good” and “Clear mind”.

You use it like “I don’t feel like that!”

In other words, the apology “Sumimasen” means that you’ve done something rude and your feelings aren’t clear.

So, when use “I’m sorry” if you need to do something after an apology.

The word “申しMoushi” in “Moushiwake arimasen” means “to say”.

In short,

“Moushiwake arimasen” means “There is nothing to say”

“Everything is wrong with me and I can’t make up for it.”

It is the highest apology.

From the above,

  • “Gomennasai” when he wants to end here
  • “Sumimasen” It does not end here. When you want to make up for it after this
  • “Moushiwakearimasen” it can be used when we have something wrong, and I can’t make up for it. We always use this in business conversation.

Here are some examples to see difference between them.

(Example 1) When you hit somebody.

“Gomennasai

⇒ There is no injury or damage to the other people.

So, this is the end of the matter,

“Gomennasai” is suitable.

(Example 2) When you hit a person and broke an egg.

“Sumimasen”

⇒ I broke an egg and use it when I want to compensate.

To express the feeling that “it will not end as it is” More serious situation

“Sumimasen” is suitable.

(Example 3) When you destroy the item of other people mother’s keepsake.

“Moushiwakearimasen”

⇒ In this case, what was destroyed was the item of the other person’s mother’s keepsake.

It is the only item in the world and there is no compensation.

If you make a serious mistake or make a customer, feel uncomfortable, also need to use it.

Therefore, the highest apology word “Moushiwake ariman” is suitable.

Another few ways to ask for forgiveness in Japanese

Below are some useful polite phrases like business situation.

“Gomeiwaku o okakeshimashita” ご迷惑おかけしました

“annoyance” or “bother,” but it can also be used to apologize when burdening the recipient. Variations of

“Gomeiwaku okake itashimashita” (ご迷惑おかけいたしました) or

“Gomeiwaku okake shimashita” (ご迷惑おかけしました) may be used to mean “forgive me for the trouble.”

“Osoreirimasu” 恐れ入ります

The more polite and formal way to say “sumimasen”, or excuse me, you can use it alone or in the beginning of a phrase, such as “osoreirimasuga…” to mean “I’m sorry but…”

“Shitsurei shimasu” 失礼します

The phrase means “being rude,” and can be used in a variety of situations as well. These include when interrupting a conversation, entering a room, leaving before someone else or saying goodbye. It can also be used for light apologies.

Below are some useful casual phrases in daily situation.

“Kanbenshite kudasai” 勘弁してください

It is sometimes used in casual situation between close coworkers and friends.

It means please forgive me or please do not say that.

Summarize

・There are a lot of phrase to say sorry in Japanese.

・Japanese people often use “Sorry” due to Cultural back ground.

“Sumimasen” is not just “Sorry” meaning, There are other meanings behind that.

・Better to learn some Japanese phrases when you go to Japan in the future. 

About Yuri Sensei 25 Articles
I am Yuri. I have worked for several companies, involved in assisting foreigners and teaching Japanese. I have also worked in Vietnam, teaching Japanese. I would like to help students abroad and teach Japanese culture. My hobbies are traveling abroad and sports, like tennis. Following excitement and discovering new things inspires me a lot. My joy in life is to help people overseas so that I can pass on the charm of Japanese culture.