Sumimasen: I’m sorry!
In Japanese culture apologies are a very important virtue and one should always be respected. It’s probably a strong cultural difference that Westerners encounter. But in Japan, an apology shows a positive attitude and demonstrates personal responsibility and caring for others. Humility is highly valued by Japanese people.
How to say sorry in Japanese? Let’s look at the different ways to say sorry as well as when and how to use them.
The first word you will have learned for this in Japanese is sumimasen. This little word is extremely useful for Japanese beginners. You may use it in different situations, first of all, to apologize—when you have bumped into someone, for example, but also to make a request or even to thank someone. To be more polite, you can add “deshita” which reinforces the sense: “I am very sorry.” Between friends, men can also use the word “suman“—but it would be very rude to use it with someone other than a very close friend.
- すみません: sumimasen
- すみませんでした: sumimasen deshita
- すまん : suman＊
＊Women should avoid this word and it shall be used only with friends and family.
Another very frequent and casual word is “gomen,” or the even more friendly “gomen ne.”
If you wish to be more formal, you can use “gomen nasai.” As those words have a childish connotation, you may not use them in every situation and when in doubt, always use sumimasen.
- ごめん: gomen
- ごめんね: gomen ne
＊Casual and a bit childish
- ごめんなさい: gomen nasai
- 私のせいで、ごめんなさい: watashi no sei de, gomen nasai (It was my fault, I’m sorry).
All of these words mean “I’m sorry” or “Excuse me.”
Between very good friends, Japanese will say “warui warui” or “warukatta.” Warui means “bad,” so that translate then as, “my bad.” Keep in mind this is very casual!
- 悪い悪い: warui warui
- 悪かった: warukatta
Now, the very formal ways to apologize in Japanese with moushi wake arimasen (I’m so sorry). This very formal expression can be used in many variations. As it’s formal, it should be used in business letters and emails. To be even more polite, instead of arimasen, you can use gozaimasen (I am deeply sorry)” With the addition of deshita it becomes “I’m deeply sorry (for what I did).”
- 申し訳ありません / ございません
moushi wake arimasen / gozaimasen
- 申し訳ありませんでした/ ございませんでした
moushi wake arimasen deshita/ gozaimasen deshita
- 大変申し訳ありません/ ございません
taihen moushi wake arimasen/gozaimasen
- 大変申し訳ありませんでした/ ございませんでした
taihen moushi wake arimasen deshita/ gozaimasen deshita
Among the formal variation of apologies in Japanese, you will find shitsurei shimashita. Although formal, “moushi wake arimasen” shows better the remorse of the person apologizing. Casually, men will use “shitsurei”.
- 失礼しました（しつれい）: shitsurei shimashita
- 失礼: shitsurei ＊Women should avoid this word
- この間、失礼しました: kono aida, shitsurei shimashita (I’m sorry for the other day)
Finally, one last way to apologize in Japanese that you may have read is built on the word meiwaku, which means “trouble.” When you cause someone trouble, you can say “meiwaku wo kakeru” and should apologize the following way:
meiwaku wo kakete sumimasen / sumimasen deshita
meiwaku wo kakete gomen ne/ gomen nasai
go meiwaku wo okakeshite sumimasen
go meiwaku wo o kakeshite moushi wake arimasen deshita
All these sentences mean “I am very/terribly/deeply sorry to have troubled you/caused you trouble”.
In Japanese, the verb to apologize is ayamaru and the verb to forgive is yurusu.
In some context, to apologize, Japanese people may simply say ayamarimasu.
What about the way Japanese people apologize publicly? Well, in those terrible times, they shall be awaseru kao ga nai (too embarrassed to face people) and have benkai no yochiganai (no excuses)! But the public might not always be keen to forgive—in which case, they will strongly say yurusanai!