Who doesn’t love going shopping? I know I do! I especially love shopping when travelling because it’s like discovering a whole other universe full of never-before-seen shops and designs. What you can find in one country, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to find them in another. It’s kind of like getting a one-of-a-kind piece that no one else back home will have — only you.
Japan is one of the best countries to shop in, with various unique styles that originated from the country itself and thousands of local shops selling at affordable prices. In fact, it’s those underground, low-key ones that have the best bargains and stuff. But of course, not all good things are easy — don’t expect all the shopowners to be able to speak English.
So why not pick up some Japanese phrases to help you snag that cute, one-of-a-kind coat? I’ve compiled a list of them along with essential words that’ll definitely help you get around Japan’s shopping universe!
~ wa arimasu ka? (〜はありますか？)
If you’ve read a couple of the other posts on the blog, you’d probably have come across this phrase before. That’s because “~wa arimasu ka?” (〜ありますか？) is extremely useful in every situation. This phrase translates to “Do you have …?” How many times have you asked a staff lady if they have something in a specific colour or size, or if they sell a specific product? I lost count for myself.
It cuts down a whole lot of time searching around by myself — I’ll just approach someone who knows the store better than I do. Don’t panic; this phrase is a yes or no question, so the replies could only be one of two ways: yes (はい) or no (いいえ).
If you want to know if they sell hats, simply add the word for “hat” at the front of the phrase: “boushi wa arimasu ka?” (帽子はありますか？). Same goes for asking for a different colour or size — just add the word for the colour or the size at the front: “aka wa arimasuka?” (赤はありますか？) means “Do you have it in red?” and “eru saizu arimasu ka?” (エルサイズありますか？) means “Do you have L size?”
Here are some words that you can use with this phrase:
Red — Aka (赤)
Blue — Ao (青)
Green — Midori (緑)
Yellow — kiiro (黄色)
Orange — orenji (オレンジ)
Purple — Murasaki (紫)
White — Howaito (ホワイト)
Black — Kuro (黒)
Pink — pinku (ピンク)
Dress — Wanpisu (ワンピス)
Fancy dress — Doresu (ドレス)
Watch — Tokei (時計)
Scarf — Sukaafu (スカーフ)
Shirt — Shatsu (シャツ)
Shoes — Kutsu (靴)
Pants — Zubon (ズボン)
Jacket — Jaketto (ジャケット)
S — esu (エス)
M — emu (エム)
L — eru (エル)
Big — ookii (大きい)
Small— chiisai (小さい)
Kono hen ni ~ arimasu ka? (この辺に〜ありますか？)
Japan has a lot of stores lined up on a single street — it can get overwhelming and confusing. Where’s the nearest shopping mall? Where can I find the drugstore? I swear Google Maps said the bookstore is here…
All these questions, who to ask, and how? Easy, with this phrase: “kono hen ni … arimasu ka?” (この辺に〜ありますか？). This translates to “Is there a … around here?” I bet you noticed the phrase we used earlier — yup, I told you, it’s extremely flexible.
If you’re looking for a supermarket, simply add that in the gap: “kono hen ni suupaamaaketto arimasu ka?” (この辺にスーパーマーケットありますか？). Similarly, it’s a yes or no question, so expect a yes or no reply — with a twist; there will be directions given most of the time, but that’s a whole other article on its own.
Here are some words of places to help you with your direction-asking:
Shop — mise (店)
Bookstore — honya (本屋)
Drug store — doraggusutoa (ドラッグストア)
Convenience store — konbini (コンビニ)
Department store — depaato (デパート)
~ sagashite imasu (〜探しています)
If you want a level up from asking if they have something or not, why not tell them what you’re looking for instead? To say “I’m looking for …”, say “~ sagashite imasu” (〜探しています).
For example, if you’re looking for a black shirt, combine the word for black and shirt with this phrase: “kuroi shatsu wo sagashite imasu” (黒いシャツ探しています). You can basically switch out anything you’re looking for and it’ll work just the same. You can even add “arimasu ka?” at the end to ask if they have what you’re looking for.
Shichaku shitemo ii desu ka? (試着してもいいですか？)
When you’re in a store, it’s only natural to want to try something on to see if it’s your size and if it suits you. I mean, that’s the only difference between shopping in-store and online. So how do you ask the staff person if you can try it on? With this phrase: “shichaku shitemo ii desu ka?” (試着してもいいですか？)
Unlike the others, this is a phrase on its on without the need to add any other words to it. It’s pretty straightforward — say it a few times and you’ll have it permanently locked in your brain.
~ sugimasu (〜すぎます)
So, after you’ve tried it on, it’s just not the right size. It may have been too big or too small — either way, you have no idea how to tell the staff person because you don’t know the words for it!
Don’t fret, this phrase is exactly that. “~ sugimasu” (〜すぎます) is like saying “it’s too…”, so to say something is too big, add the word for big before it: “ookisugimasu” (大きすぎます). If something is too small, add the word for small instead: “chisasugimasu” (小さすぎます).
And that’s all there is to it!
Nanji ~ aitemasu ka? (何時〜空いてますか？ )
When you’re travelling, opening hours seem to be extra important — that extra hour in the morning or an extra half hour of nighttime shopping is the game we all play. Most of the time, the opening hours reflected on Google Maps are up-to-date, but some local shops won’t even be listed on Google Maps. How does one figure out the opening times then?Ask, of course. This phrase gets you the opening and closing times depending on what word you use in the gap: “Nanji ~ aitemasu ka?” (何時〜空いてますか？). This phrase basically translates to “ … what time does it open?”
To ask what time does it close, add the word “made” (まで) to mean “until” in the gap: “Nanji made aitemasu ka?” (何時まで空いてますか？) This translates to “until what time do you open?”
To ask what time does it open, use “kara” (から) to mean “from” instead: “Nanji kara aitemasu ka?” (何時から空いてますか？). This means “from what time do you open?”
Ikura desu ka? (いくらですか？)
Most of the time, the price tags are plastered on each garment and accessory, but on the off chance it’s not, you need to be able to ask, “How much is it?” This phrase is exactly that. Approach the staff lady, point to the item and ask, “ikura desu ka?” (いくらですか？)
Be sure to practice your numbers in Japanese! It can get quite confusing — hyaku (百), sen (千) and man (万) do not exactly work the same way as hundreds and thousands.
~ onegaishimasu (〜お願いします )
So you figured out the price, found your size and colour, and you’re at the cash register. How are you going to pay? Cash or card? Do you want a bag? How are you going to convey all of that?
With “~ onegaishimasu” (〜お願いします) — duh! It’s like our first phrase where it’s pretty flexible and extremely useful. Want to pay by cash? Add the word for cash (現金, genkin) before that: “genkin onegaishimasu” (現金お願いします). How about card (クレジットカード, kurejitto kaado): “kurejitto kaado onegaishimasu” (クレジットカードカードお願いします).
Want a bag to put it all in? “Kaban onegaishimasu” (カバンお願いします) does the trick!
And you’re all set for your shopping trip in Japan! You’re able to find your stuff, ask for the right colour and size, get the location and opening hours of the store you’re looking for, figure out the price and pay for it — that’s all the steps! Now get your shopping shoes on and grab that credit card, and get shopping!
You know how when you travel, you’d spend hours and hours in souvenir shops, picking out the best takeaway for yourself as well as your friend and family back home? I know I’m guilty of that. The souvenir culture is huuuuge everywhere in the world — that explains the streets of souvenir shops full of city landscapes printed on shirts, magnets and keychains.
In Japan, even if you go to a different prefecture in the same country, it’s kind of obligatory to bring back a souvenir — or in this case, omiyage (お土産). Omiyage is actually so much more than just a souvenir; we’ll talk about that in detail later on in the article.
This omiyage culture can be extremely foreign to…well, foreigners. So much that it can take quite a bit of getting used to. Don’t get scared off just yet — here’s a breakdown of what it is, where the culture came from and a simple guide on how to pick the perfect omiyage.
What is “omiyage”?
First off, what is omiyage actually? To know what it actually means, we’ll have to break down the kanji of the word: 土 means “earth/ground” and 産 means “product”. Combine the two, the word “omiyage” can translate to being a “local product”, given as a gift when returning from a trip.
Usually, omiyage comes in boxes that are brightly coloured, with individually wrapped snacks that are perfect for sharing amongst people at work, school and even at home. In some cultures, mine included, bringing back a piece of the place you visited isn’t really that big of a deal, but in Japan, it’s customary — it’s like a social taboo if you don’t do it!
The significance of omiyage
Why the strong emphasis on omiyage? It’s basically the idea of sharing your experience, to explain it briefly. Oftentimes, omiyage is something that’s specific to the region you visited. Whether it’s sweets or other types of food, as long as the area is known for that, it’ll make an ideal omiyage.
For example, Okinawa is known for goya and sweet potato — so pick your omiyage based on that. By bringing back the region’s specialty, you’re giving the people a chance to try a regional product that you possibly can’t get outside of the area — although nowadays, you probably can, but that doesn’t matter!
So, where did this omiyage culture come from? To be very honest, no one really knows. But it all started from sacred pilgrimages. People who visited Shinto shrines were to bring back some sort of evidence of their pilgrimage. Back then, omiyage comes in the form of charms and rice wine cups. They believed that people who have these items would be blessed just like the pilgrims themselves.
In those days, food preservation wasn’t that common. It was pretty limited and people were traveling on foot, so baggage was kept at a minimum to keep it light. When the railway system was built, it made transporting food so much easier. I guess that’s how omiyage transitioned to mostly be food — even though it’s not limited to that.
Omiyage vs souvenir
So the question remains: what’s the difference between omiyage and souvenir? Omiyage is usually translated to “souvenir” in English, but there’s a slight difference.
Souvenir is more often than not used to refer to takeaways from a country that you buy for yourself, and maybe a lucky few friends and family. Omiyage refers to things that you buy solely for others. You’re thinking about them when you buy it — that’s what makes it extra special. While souvenirs are what you keep for yourself, omiyage is not consumed or kept by the traveller.
What’s more, souvenirs don’t have to be a specialised item from the area, but for omiyage, it has to be. It’s like bringing back matcha (抹茶) from Japan and not a bag of chips — bad comparison, but hopefully you get the idea.
How to pick the perfect omiyage?
It sounds like a lot of work, picking out the perfect omiyage. But there’s a simple solution to the ideal omiyage anywhere you go: food. Anything edible makes the perfect omiyage for your coworkers, friends and family.
If you’re choosing omiyage in Japan, you’ll soon realise you’ll have quite a hard time picking just one because souvenir shops in the country are full of them! I know I have a hard time every time — which do I buy for myself and which do I give out to others?
Definitely choose something that has a nice packaging — ideally with something that represents the region you went to. You might want to consider the cost as well; keep it between 500 to 1500 yen, but I’d recommend getting one with a nice label on it.
A lot of omiyage products in Japan are individually packed for this very convenience of sharing with others. They come in 6, 10, 12 and 18 most of the time. Calculate how many people are there in your workplace or family — and buy accordingly. The more food there is, the merrier, I’d say.
If you’re travelling during a special time like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, get those limited edition ones! It gives the extra umph to your omiyage cred!
Also, buy it on the last day of your trip! Even though a lot of omiyage can last quite a while, now with the modern technology of food preservation, I would advise keeping the omiyage picking activity as the last event so that the food would be fresher — and also not have to go through all the bumpy train and car rides.
And there you have it — the omiyage culture is actually not that scary. It’s pretty simple once you’ve gotten the basics down. And don’t worry, we usually get the “gaijin pass”, as I’d like to call it — which is when the Japanese people understand that us foreigners aren’t used to their ways. But it’s always best to know all of the ins and outs, right? Like they say, “when in Japan, do what the Japanese do” — or did I not get that right?
Ask any of my friends — they’re at the point where they’re sick of hearing me talk about the moon. I’m obsessed with it, so imagine my excitement when I found out that the moon has quite the significance in Japanese culture.
And when I say significant, I mean significant. They have a whole festival just for moon viewing — which I’ll talk about more at a later part.
Along with that, we’ll take a look at the various representations the moon has, as well as the rare and beautiful blood moon — quite an untapped topic when talking about the moon and Japan. So stick around to fill yourself with all of these exciting info and more!
The Moon in Japanese Culture
Japan is famously called “The Land of the Rising Sun”, but this island nation has a long association with the moon, it becoming an important part of their culture and beliefs. Religion in Japan is a mixture of traditional Shinto as well as Zen Buddhism — both having a strong appreciation for the beauty of earthly creations. Shinto centers on the spirit of nature while Zen Buddhism concentrates on selflessness and enlightenment.
The Japanese mood god is called Tsukuyomi in Shinto and the sun goddess is Amaterasu. The moon god’s sister takes the stage most of the time, but at night, Tsukuyomi embodies all the positive things of the dark sky — spirituality, dreams and energy balance. In Zen Buddhism, the moon symbolises enlightenment.
Regardless of which religion one is in, the Japanese people collectively look up to the moon as a positive force in their beliefs.
Japanese Moon Festival
The moon is so greatly respected that there is even a holiday in Japan for moon-viewing: Tsukimi (月見). This traditional ceremony takes place in autumn to honor the autumn moon, also known as the harvest moon (名月, meigetsu), expressing gratitude and pray for a successful seasonal harvest.
There isn’t a fixed date each year — it greatly depends on the lunar calendar. It falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, so it’s usually between mid-September and the beginning of October.
Tsukimi goes way back to the Nara period of 710AD to 794AD. It originally was just a basic moon-viewing party for the upper class, the elite, who have boat gatherings and listen to music under the stars and the moon’s reflection. It caught on in the 1600s when even the commoners celebrate it — maybe not on boats as such.
How is it celebrated?
Nowadays, the practice and customs of Tsukimi are practiced even a few days leading up to the full moon instead of just on the day itself — regardless of whether or not the moon is visible. Some Japanese people will burn incense, visit shrines and offer the food of their harvest to the Shinto gods.
Decorations are somewhat huge when it comes to Tsukimi. You’ll often see susuki (ススキ, pampas grass) — since it’s the tallest in the autumn season — and other autumn flowers placed at home or around the area for the moon-viewing party. Of course, they’re arranged in the traditional Japanese flower arrangement, ikebana (生け花). Suzuki is used in a bunch of five to ten plumes to resemble rice plants, and believed to prevent any evil from entering the area. Arranging them on the roof is offering it to the moon god.
If you see stacked dango (団子) as decorations, that’s pretty normal. It’s chosen as offerings as it represents the beauty of the moon — round and pure white. These white dumplings made of rice are often presented in 15 to represent the fifteenth of the month, or sometimes 12 to represent the number of months in the year.
Don’t worry, you can also eat these dango. Actually, eating them is part of the customs fo the festival — believed to bring happiness and good health. Unlike the other times of the year, dango during this festival aren’t skewered or seasoned; only plain, and they’re known as the tsukimi dango (月見団子).
“Rabbit In The Moon”
Have you ever heard of the “Rabbit In the Moon”? I bet you’ve heard of the “Man on the Moon” — but the Japanese have their own beliefs. See the pattern on the moon? The Japanese people believe that the moon’s craters resemble an image of a rabbit pounding mochi (もち, rice cake) with a mallet.
See, there’s a backstory to that. In Japanese folklore, a rabbit didn’t get its ticket to the moon by hitchhiking on Apollo 11, but rather he was brought to the moon by a mythical man. It’s all because this special rabbit was willing to throw himself into a fire and roast himself alive when the moon man, disguised as a beggar, asked the animals for food. As a reward, the rabbit got a one-way ticket to the moon!
The Rare Blood Moon
If you look up tales about the moon in Japanese culture, you’re probably going to get Sailor Moon-related articles as well as everything else I’ve mentioned above. But what you won’t usually get is the tea on the rare blood moon. Our world is full of magical happenings waiting to be discovered — the blood moon that graces us with its appearance once ever so often is definitely one of them.
In our day and age of modern technology and science, we’re just a click of a button away from feeding our curiosity about the world, but the people in the olden days weren’t as lucky. If we want to know why Earth’s natural satellite turns red every few years or so, we just go on the Internet. Imagine what the ancient people were thinking when the only natural light of the night sky turned red all of a sudden? If it were me, I bet I would freak out! So rest assured some of them did.
So of course, since the Japanese have been around for so long, they have their own superstitions and mythology about this beautiful — at the time, scary — crimson light.
Why does the moon turn red?
Our moon as we know it is either white or yellow — sometimes orange. We all want to know why it turns red. Well, a blood moon is only possible during a full moon — when the moon is on the other side of Earth, making our lovely planet in between the sun and moon. Another factor that is required for a blood moon to happen is that it also has to be during a lunar eclipse.
See, a full moon happens every lunar month, but a lunar eclipse happens less often; about two to four times a year. The moon doesn’t orbit the Earth in the same position each time — it’s tilted following how the Earth is as it orbits around the sun. The blood moon doesn’t always appear every lunar eclipse, because there are three types of lunar eclipse: total lunar eclipse, partial lunar eclipse and penumbral lunar eclipse. Each of them refers to the different ways the moon passes through the Earth’s shadow.
The total lunar eclipse is when the moon is fully covered by the Earth’s shadow — but this total block doesn’t hide the moon, but it causes the moon to take on the reflection of the Earth’s light (this is also when the blood moon can possibly happen). The partial lunar eclipse is when the sun, moon and Earth aren’t that aligned, so the moon would be partially blocked, resulting in the moon looking like it’s been bitten off. The penumbral lunar eclipse can’t be seen as much, because it’s when the moon goes out of the Earth’s main shadow area — it’ll be lightly shaded, but nothing so visible to the naked eye.
When the Earth, sun and moon are in perfect alignment (the total lunar eclipse), the Earth casts a shadow onto the moon, partially or fully blocking the sun’s light. The moon gets its light from the Earth’s reflection through the planet’s atmosphere. Our beautiful planet gives out blue and red light the strongest since it’s the least altered during the filtration process. That’s when you’ll be lucky enough to witness the red moon.
Sometimes you won’t get a full-on red colour — depending on the dust, pollution and clouds in the atmosphere, it can come off orange. The more particles there are, the darker the colour red would be. And the same for the opposite — the fewer particles there are, the lighter the colour is.
Myths on the blood moon
There have been tons of mythology of the blood moon throughout history and in various cultures, and of course, the Japanese have their own. Usually, it’s linked to something bad — I mean, it is lit up in blood red…who wouldn’t think it’s the sign of evil?
In Japan, there isn’t one myth, because in the ancient days, Japan wasn’t just one single country but consisted of multiple civilisations that could’ve been considered their own individual countries.
At the end of the Heian period and the beginning of the Mamkura period, the Japanese people then considered the blood moon as a sign that something bad would happen. Historical names such as Kujo Kanemi and Minamoto no Yoritomo have written about the blood moon. Kujo did a specific type of Buddhist practice to prevent bad occurrences during a blood moon; the first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate stayed inside to avoid the blood moon lunar eclipse. There was also a famous poet during the Heian period, Saigyo, who mentioned in one of his poems about the lunar eclipse when the blood moon happens — and naturally, it had a bad outlook on the blood moon.
Another one of the Japanese myths about the blood moon is connected to the ancient Japanese mythology about Amaterasu, the sun goddess. In the Kokiji, the oldest and most ancient Japanese books in history, Amaterasu entered a cave because of a blood moon and only came out when she was lured out by a mirror.
Superstitions of the blood moon
Even in this modern day, there are still superstitions around. Of course, back then, coincidences become superstitions. Bad happenings on a blood moon may be a coincidence, but the ancient people definitely didn’t think so. People believe that the blood moon alters the Earth and human behavior negatively.
I bet you’ve heard that a full moon can affect tides and currents — so naturally, people believe a blood moon can significantly affect them and ultimately cause tsunamis. A lunar eclipse does mean that the moon is closer to the Earth, affecting the tides due to gravitational forces, but studies proved that tsunamis are caused by geographical events on Earth rather than tidal effect – canceling out the superstition on the blood moon’s effects.
Even till now, many still believe that a blood moon causes earthquakes. There have been studies that show an earthquake on a blood moon to be stronger than normal, but other studies concluded that there is no apparent connection between the two.
Another superstition is that the blood moon can affect one’s behaviour — to the extremes of acting crazy and reacting violently. That’s where the word “lunatic” and “lunacy” comes from as well — the Latin word for moon is “luna”. Luckily for us, there’s no scientific evidence for those.
Regardless of the negative associations of the blood moon, I still love the moon. It is Earth’s natural satellite, greeting us every night. Whatever colour it is — white, yellow or red — it still has a great impact in Japanese culture. Positive or negative influence, the moon is a beautiful part of nature that creates natural phenomena from time to time, and we’re all just lucky to be able to see some of them from the comfort of our planet.
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.