I remember a visiting friend once asked me while we were at a restaurant, why I would say sumimasen すみません (Sorry…), which is a Japanese word of apology, when the waitress brought us food. “It feels appropriate” was my first thought. After thinking about it again, I resolved that using sumimasen in this context means “I’m sorry to have troubled you, but thank you,” instead of a plain translation of “sorry”.
Why do Japanese Say “Sorry” So Much?
The incident reminds me of an HBR article that compares the psychologies of the Japanese and the American inclination towards apologizing. The article asserts that while an apology in Western thinking would imply guilt and personal responsibility for wrongdoing, Japanese, as well as most East Asian cultures, focus on moving beyond what had happened, even in cases when the speaker was not personally responsible. Thus a Japanese person would 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.
Simply put, an English “sorry” and a Japanese “sorry” might not mean the same thing, and the speaker’s cultural context will need to be taken into account before his/her apology can be understood as intended.
Given their sensitive and class-conscious nature, the Japanese apologize thoughtfully yet routinely, as seen in their multiple, situation-dependent expressions:
Japanese Apology #1 – Sumimasen (すみません)
“Sumimasen” is the most commonly used “sorry” in everyday life – use it as an apology when you have unintentionally stepped on someone. “Sumimasen” can also be used as “excuse me,” for example when you want to call a waiter in a restaurant or get off of a crowded train. And as explained above, “sumimasen” displays a sense of thankfulness.
But I thought “arigatou” was the word for “thank you”?
When looking at it closely, sumimasen – literally meaning in Japanese “it cannot be settled/ completed” (済みません) – can be the shortened forms of the following two expressions:
1. I cannot fully express my remorse for what had happened and I apologize.
2. I cannot thank you enough for going out of your way for me.
Some even go further to argue that “sumimasen” should be used to thank superiors, while “arigatou” should be directed at those at the same ranking or below.
One thing to note: However you choose to use “sumimasen,” make sure you do not use the slang version “suimasen” at superiors due to the casualness it suggests; or worse, “suman” that you may hear on TV shows or anime (usually used by male), which is the shortened form of “sumanai” (the plain form of “sumimasen”).
Japanese Apology #2 – Sumimasen deshita (すみませんでした)
A more formal version of “sumimasen” (i.e. sorry) is “sumimasen-deshita,” which you can use to apologize to a superior or after a bigger mistake than stepping on someone’s foot. The adding of “deshita” turns “sumimasen” into past tense, and can be interpreted as “I’m sorry for what I did.”
Japanese Apology #3 – Gomen / Gomen-nasai / Gomen-kudasai (ごめん・ごめんなさい・ごめんください)
The kanji of “men” in “gomen” (御免) means “to forgive,” so the phrases of “gomen,” “gomen-nasai” and “gomen-kudasai” (i.e. different forms of politeness in ascending order) would give the apology a sense of admission of the wrongdoing by asking for forgiveness.
Both “gomen-nasai” and “gomen-kudasai” are translated from Japanese to “please forgive me” and are more polite than “gomen”, which should be used to close friends and family only.
While both “sumimasen” and “gomen-nasai” are acceptable ways to say sorry, “gomen-nasai” is somewhat more preferred due to its indication of guilt, especially when facing superiors or in (relatively less serious) commercial settings.
Japanese Apology #4 – Shitsurei / Shitsurei-shimasu (失礼・失礼します)
“Shitsurei” (失礼) means rude, or literally “losing respect,” so the phrases “shitsurei” and “shitsurei-shimasu” could imply “pardon my rudeness.” “Shitsurei-shimasu” is also used when someone is dismissing his/herself from someone important, such as leaving a doctor’s office after a consultation.
Japanese Apology #5 – Shitsurei-shimashita / Shitsurei-itashimashita (失礼しました・失礼いたしました)
“Shitsurei-shimashita” and “shitsurei-itashimashita” (in ascending order of politeness) are past tense and formal versions of “shitsurei-shimasu.” These are recommended for work-related situations, and you will hear them quite often in commercial settings.
But now we get to the most solemn words of apology:
Japanese Apology #6 – Moushiwake-nai / Moushiwake-arimasen / Moushiwake-gozaimasen (申し訳ない・申し訳ありません・申し訳ございません)
“Moushiwake” (申し訳) means excuse, so the phrases “moshiwake-nai” and its keigo equivalents would mean “No excuses [can justify my actions and I apologize].”
“Moushiwake-gozaimasen” would be the most polite out of the three forms above but – you guessed it – the past tense will take them even further…
Japanese Apology #7 – Moushiwake-arimasen-deshita / Moushiwake-gozaimasen-deshita (申し訳ありませんでした・申し訳ございませんでした)
These should be used when you are in big trouble at work; for example, you have made some serious mistakes during a client presentation. (And say it with a deep bow!)
But, say, if these mistakes cost your company a client, the ultimate apology would be:
Japanese Apology #8 – Makotoni-moushiwake-gozaimasen-deshita (誠に申し訳ございませんでした)
Which should be interpreted as “there were no excuses for my mistakes, I am totally responsible for what I have done and am sincerely apologetic.” You might hear it sometimes in public announcements, such as train delays, but you should hope you never have to be the one to say it to someone else!
So in ascending order of seriousness/politeness, there are 8 ways to apologize in Japanese. The main thing you should take away from this is that like the act of expressing gratitude, the act of apologizing is incredibly important in Japan, even for things that are not clearly your fault. When you learn how to apologize for the smallest things, you will have better and easier relationships with Japanese people.