So we know that there’s more than one way to say hello and thank you, so what about saying sorry? That’s no different — of course, in Japanese, there are a few paths you can take to apologise.
In any language, seeking someone’s forgiveness is not easy. An apology has to be genuine, sincere and convey the full emotion you’re giving. There’s also the part of the culture — the social norm back home that calls for an apology might not be the case somewhere else in the world. And Japan is more than known to be the country that is different in every and all aspects.
If you’ve read the article on the various ways to say thank you, you’d know that in some cases, an apology is more accepted than thanks. That’s just one example of how saying sorry is used only in Japan and not anywhere else in the world.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the several forms of apology — from casual to formal and everything in between.
The first on our list of apologies is definitely every foreigner’s first apology word: gomennasai (ごめんなさい). Let’s admit it — we know about this even before stepping into our first Japanese lesson. We hear it in anime and Japanese movies or dramas. For some of us, we hear it on the streets of Japan itself.
Gomennasai isn’t considered too formal nor too casual. It’s pretty much the neutral apology. You can use it for people who are older than you, your friends, or even people on the lower social status as you — flexible, right?
If you do want to make it even less formal, cut it short to gomen (ごめん). This one, however, can be perceived as too casual in some cases. For example, if you’re apologising to your parents, the polite version of gomennasai is much more acceptable than gomen. Gomen can be used to people of the same age or lower. Add a “ne” at the end to make gomenne (ごめんね) for a softer, cuter tone — I advise girls to do it when apologising to your boyfriend; I bet their hearts will go soft and forgive you instantly.
If you want to bump it up a notch to show your deepest sincerity, add hontoni (本当に) before the apology form: hontoni gomennasai (本当にごめんなさい) or hontoni gomen (本当にごめん). You could also use sugoku (すごく) instead of hontoni — they both mean the same thing, more or less.
Our second form of apology is another common one — in fact, one might argue it’s the most commonly used one of them all. I’ve introduced this phrase as one of the ways to say thank you, but it actually holds the meaning of an apology. Some may say it’s more of a lax apology than anything…which is somewhat true.
If you accidentally bump into someone on the street or commit a social faux pas, go in with a sumimasen (すみません) and that will suffice. It’s a laidback and casual apology without really losing its politeness.
Sumimasen can also be used like “excuse me” — as in, “excuse me, can you get out of my way?” If someone is blocking your way out the train door at your stop, a simple “sumimasen” to the crowd would do just the trick. Another situation is when you’re trying to get the waiter’s attention at a restaurant — raise your hand ever so slightly and semi-shout “sumimasen”.
Sumimasen can also hold a sense of thankfulness and gratitude — that’s why, in some situations, the Japanese people would use it instead of saying arigatou (ありがとう) to thank someone. I guess that’s because the word “sumimasen” has the literal meaning of “it cannot be completed or settled”. So when one uses “sumimasen” as a thank you, it’s as if they’re saying “I cannot thank you enough for going out of your way just for me” or “I cannot fully express to you my remorse, so I apologise.”
Anyway, aside from using it as a thank you, a daily example to use sumimasen to apogise is when you’re late to something — do note that in Japanese culture, being late is an extreme no-no. Even being on time is considered late; being early is being on time.
So when you’re past the time to meet, add the conjugated form of “okureru” (遅れる), to mean late, with sumimasen: “okurete sumimasen” (遅れてすみません).
I often hear this in a Japanese drama when someone is interrupting something — that is one of the ways to use this form of apology. Shitsureishimasu (失礼します) comes from the word shitsurei (失礼), which means “impoliteness” — so the phrase can roughly translate to “oh, I’m being impolite” or “oh, my mistake.”
Most of the time, this expression is used in business situations due to its semi-formal tone. When you have troubled another person or, say, walk into your boss’ office and interrupt his daily work, before anything else, you can say “shitsureishimasu”.
If you watch the local news, you probably would hear this quite often. When the newscaster mispronounces something or delivered the wrong information, they would use this form of apology instead of the others. You would even hear some people say the expression before hanging up the phone.
For an even more polite and sincere version, add “taihen” (大変) before it as it translates to “greatly” in English: “taihen shitsureishimashita” (大変失礼しました).
Similar to shitsureishimasu, this form of apology is used when interrupting someone. Ojamashimasu (お邪魔します) comes from the word ojama (お邪魔) which means “intrusion”. Oftentimes, this expression is used when you’re visiting someone’s house — so before you enter, you usually say this.
You can also use it in business situations when you’re walking into a meeting or someone’s office. The difference between “shitsureishimasu” and “ojamashimasu” is that the latter can only be used when interrupting something, whereas the former is more flexible and multi-purpose.
I personally only ever use it when entering someone’s house or room. There is a sense of politeness to it rather than apologising, though.
Moushi wake arimasen (申し訳ありません)
Onto our next one — a very formal one, actually. We always need a way to apologise to our higher-ups at the office, especially the big boss. I mean, we don’t mean to do anything wrong, but it’ll definitely come one day, wouldn’t it?
So, prepare yourself with moushi wake arimasen (申し訳ありません). This is the ultimate apology to use in business situations that show extreme sincerity. It’s kind of like the humble form of “sumimasen” — expressing how apologetic you are indirectly. Because of the humbleness factor, it’s the perfect one to use in business as it increases the respect clothes have for you.
One phrase you’ll hear with this form of apology is “gomeiwaku o okakeshite, moushi wake arimasen” (ご迷惑をおかけして申し訳ありません). This translates to “I sincerely apologise for the inconvenience caused.” The Japanese people don’t like causing inconvenience to others — it’s just in their culture to have everything run as smoothly as possible. Everyone’s kind of careful to not trouble others with their actions and words. If and when a situation comes up where they have accidentally inconvenienced someone else, you’ll definitely hear this phrase being used.
I’ll also give an example of how you can use it in a business setting. Say you were on a holiday and didn’t check your emails or pick up any of your calls, and when you go to the office on the first working day back, you realised you’ve missed out on tons of emails. Use this phrase: “gorenraku ga osokunarimashite taihen moushi wake gozaimasen” (ご連絡は遅くなりまして大変申し訳ございません). You probably realised I used “moushi wake gozaimasen” instead of “arimasen”, but that’s because the former is even more polite. This phrase translates to “I’m terribly sorry for the late response.” Use this in your email or when you call back the client.
Kanben shite (勘弁して)
This form of apology has a double meaning, one of it being an apology — but more of like an intense, “have mercy on me!” kind of way. Actually, that’s exactly what kanben shite (勘弁して) means. If you really screwed up, say “kanben shite kudasai” (勘弁してください). It expresses that you’re completely wrecked with guilt and in desperate need of forgiveness.
The other meaning, which is the one I use for more often than as an apology, is like “oh for goodness’ sake!” I hear — and learned — it in dramas and anime, where if your friend is being ridiculous and you kind of want to say to him “oh, please!”, they would use “kanben shite kure yo!” (勘弁してくれよ！). It’s like “give me a break, will ya?”
Onto our last one, sumanai (すまない). If you haven’t caught onto it just yet, it’s the slang form of sumimasen. More often than not, the guys would use this form of apology — not so much the girls — and they use it to replace “gomennasai”.
Even though sumimasen has a polite and formal tone, sumanai is quite the opposite. I’d say it’s the most casual form of apology on the whole list. With that being said, don’t use it to your superiors or anyone above your social status rank — only use it with close friends, maybe good colleagues and workers below you.
And that wraps up the various forms of apology — some with more subtle nuances for specific situations, others extremely general and multi-purpose. Saying sorry can be quite a nerve-wracking thing, especially in a culture like the Japanese where there’s more than one way to express your deepest regret. However, I’m confident that these seven ways cover most situations when it comes to saying sorry in Japanese.