As discussed in Top 10 Etiquette Mistakes in Japan, there are two golden rules for apologising in Japanese:
1) If it’s your fault apologize.
2) If it’s not your fault, apologize.
I’m half joking but Japanese people tend to apologize more frequently than westerners. As they say in Japan:
とりあえず謝る – toriaezu ayamaru
(Whatever happens) just apologize
In this podcast, Asuka and Alex go through the basics of apologising in Japanese in different situations and contexts. This is perhaps one of the most important skills you will learn when studying Japanese.
Being humble, sincere and ready to admit you are wrong are traits held in high regard in Japan. Making excuses is avoided as that can be interpreted as being selfish or childish.
Japanese are also sometimes quick to apologize for the actions of others especially if they are in the same group. Some westerners might sometimes find this hard to understand however Japanese people are highly sensitive to the group dynamic and how their actions might affect others.
So, let’s have a look at the most useful vocabulary and phrases for apologizing in Japanese.
This is most common way to say sorry for something. It is common for people in conversation to pronounce it “seimasen”. However, it is also useful in a variety of other situations, for example:
1) “Excuse me” if you bump into someone on the street or just a simple apology
すみません – sumimasen
Sorry, that was bad of me
2) Getting someone’s attention such as a waiter or when you want to ask someone directions.
すみません、メニューお願いします – sumimasen, menyuu onegaishimasu
Excuse me, can I have the menu please?
すみません、駅はどこですか – sumimasen, eki wa doko desu ka
Excuse me, where is the station?
3) Receiving something from someone
A: メニューをどうぞ – menyuu o dozo
B: すみません – sumimasen
A: Here’s the menu
ごめんなさい GOMEN NASAI
“Gomen nasai” is a little less formal than “sumimasen” and can sometimes sound a little childish so it’s better to only use this with friends and not your boss or other superiors.
It can also be shortened to ごめんね – gomen ne which is much more casual. When in doubt, use “sumimasen”.
申し訳ありません MōSHIWAKE ARIMASEN
This is a very formal phrase and is stronger than “sumimasen” and “gomen nasai”. This should be used when apologizing to superiors. As a tourist or customer, you’ll often hear this when staff apologize to you.
Here are some typical uses of this phrase:
大変申し訳ありません -taihen mōushiwake arimasen
I’m very sorry
遅れて申し訳ありません – okurete mōshiwake arimasen
I’m sorry for being late
申し訳ありません満席です – mōshiwake arimasen manseki desu
I’m sorry, the flight is full. (no seats left)
申し訳ありません満室です – mōshiwake arimasen manshitsu desu
I’m sorry we don’t have any available rooms left.
失礼します SHITSUREI SHIMASU
Shitsurei literally means “rude” so when you say Shitsurei shimasu is a semi-causal way to say you are sorry. It has various uses including the following;
失礼な！– shitsurei na
How rude! – Used when complaining about a rude person.
失礼します – shitsurei shimasu
I’m sorry / Excuse me
失礼しました – shitsurei shimashita
I’m sorry (This is usually used for something bad you did or a mistake you made)
失礼 – Shitsurei
Sorry (Very casual and usually used more by men)
お先に失礼します – osaki ni shitsurei shimasu
May I be excused? – This is used when you are the first person to leave a social gathering or the office at the end of the day.
This means trouble or troublesome and although is not an apology in itself, it is used a lot with “sumimasen” and “mōushiwake arimasen” and is quite formal. For example:
ご迷惑をおかけてしてすみません – gomeiwaku o okakeshite sumimasen
I’m sorry for any trouble I caused. (Polite)
ご迷惑をおかけております – gomeiwaku o okakeshite orimasu
(The most formal way of apologizing often seen on signs outside construction works)
OWABI MōSHI AGEMASU
This is extremely polite and formal. It is rarely used in speech and usually appears in formal letters of apology.
Here’s a video we did about apologising in Japanese. Check it out!
Video transcript (Japanese)
konnichi wa. Konkai wa ayamarikata wo benkyō shitai to omoimasu. mazu “sumimasen”, “gomen nasai”. motto foomaru na iikata wa “mōshi wake arimasen”. nihonjin wa kekō ayamaru no de ki o tsukete kudasai. moshi ayamarareteta toki wa “daijōbu”, “ii yo”, konna kanji desu. nihonjin wa ayamaru toki ni ojigi shitari toka, ato “gomen nasai” toiu fuu ni shimasu. kekō nihonjin wa ayamaru no de anmari ki ni shinai hō ga ii kamo. owari desu.
Hello, today let’s study how to apologize in Japanese. First off we have “sumimasen” and “gomen nasai”. A more formal way to apologise is “Mōshi wake arisen”. Japanese tend to apologise a lot so please be careful! If someone apologises to you you can respond by saying “daijōbu” – it’s fine or “ii yo” – that’s OK, something like that. When Japanese apologise, they usual bow or say gomen nasai (and put their hands together like this). Japanese do tend to apologize a lot so don’t worry too much when it happens. That’s it!
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