There are four key distinctions to keep in mind when thinking about how people structure their apologies in Japan. These include: region, age, gender, and personal character.
There are a plethora of set phrases to choose from and they basically all have the same definition in the Japanese-English dictionary. Apologetic manners in Japan are nuanced and it’s fairly easy to make a faux pas if you are new to the country and language.
There is good news though! If you’re visiting Japan, you don’t need any more than two words when apologizing to cover your bases. There are, however, a few phrases you might hear on a day-to-day basis from native speakers.
This article will cover common phrases (for both foreigners and Japanese business workers), as well as body language, historical phrases, and even phrases you might hear west in Kyoto, south in Okinawa, or north in Hokkaido.
I was a bit stumped when I started research for this article so I would like to give a shout-out to everyone who contributed in one way or another: coworkers, students, random coffee shop baristas and their customers, the young girl who crashed into a Christmas tree, staff at my favorite yakitori restaurant, and the NHK guy.
What you’ll get here is thoroughly researched information, backed up by the actual testimony of native Japanese speakers!
How do you say sorry in Japanese?
There are two important ways to apologize in Japanese: sumimasen and gomen’nasai. “Sumimasen” is roughly equivalent to “excuse me” or a soft “sorry” in English. You can use it if you bump someone lightly, or even to call a waiter. “Gomen’nasai” is more like a full “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” in English. It’s good to use if you knock into someone hard or make a serious mistake. All of these should usually be accompanied by a slight bow.
It’s all in the tone…
One might say that apologies in Japan are a dime a dozen. That they are always saying “I’m sorry” and bowing for one thing or another.
Rather than being a uniquely polite culture, I’d say this stereotype originates more from a misunderstanding of how Japanese mannerism functions in any given situation.
As you read, please think about each phrase in the context of the 5Ws you learned in school: who, what, when, where, and why.
However as with any language, no matter how polite or humble you phrase your apology, your tone and body language are one among the most crucial factors to conveying sincerity (no matter how casual the apology).
Japanese is no different.
Let’s start with the non-verbal ways Japanese people apologize.
Rather than shake hands or hug, Japanese people prefer bowing to each other.
There are various reasons behind this cultural preference, including the side sanitary benefit from avoiding physical body contact with every Jane or Joe.
For instance, Japanese people will bow when they are making introductions, greeting a customer in a store, and many other times during daily life (often even while on the phone!).
Depending on the circumstance, bowing is a symbol of greeting, respect, gratitude, and/or apology.
When it comes to apologizing, your relationship with the person and the extent to which you screwed up determines the duration and angle of the bow you are making.
Simple rule of thumb: the more serious the apology, the deeper (the angle of) the bow. This is true whether you are making a standing bow 正立 (seiritsu) or sitting bow 正座 (seiza). You will be hard-pressed to find someone who measures out the exact angle of their bow, so don’t worry about practicing every second of the day in front of the mirror.
However, I do recommend practicing sitting in the seiza position a couple of times prior to public use, as it can feel fairly uncomfortable until you are accustomed to it. As long as you are able to properly convey your regret, you should have no problems.
Of course, bowing is not done for every single apology. Casual apologies will consist of no more than a simple nod by both parties involved and perhaps brief eye-contact in which a wordless apology is communicated.
Sit or Stand…You Decide
Written 会釈 (eshaku), slight upright or seated bows are carried out with the upper body tilted forward 15 degrees.
These are generally considered more casual than formal bows and usually a little too shallow for apologies. The eshaku most commonly is used in greeting, but you’ll still catch it once in a while as an apology.
The most common formal standing bow 敬礼 (keirei) is reserved for when you need to respectfully apologize to someone, such as a client, customer, or boss. Angle the body 30 to 45 degrees forward. This can be adapted for the sitting (seiza) position as well just by making that same bend forward.
A dramatic apology, reserved for conveying your deepest regret, the 最敬礼(saikeirei) is performed standing (seiritsu) at a 70 degree angle and in seiza with your head mere centimeters from the floor.
Finally, the 土下座 (dogeza) “pleading fervently for your life” bow. Look up any samurai or yakuza movie and you will probably see someone at some point get down on their knees, their head pressed to the ground, trembling in fear and exuding feelings of shame.
They may have to stay in this position for minutes, hours, or until the person they are apologizing to makes a decision on their fate—either forgiveness or death. Whichever comes soonest.
Sorry to disappoint, but this style of bowing was more popular among the general public during the Edo and Meiji era when there was a clearer system of rank and file.
It can still be seen nowadays in tv and film centered around politics or business, reserved only for the biggest screw ups.
A few General Tips
There are a couple of big No-Nos for apologetic bowing. They are pretty straightforward, and no you probably won’t get deported for making one or two missteps (that’s a joke, of course). This will give you a taste for how strict mannerism in Japan is.
1. speak while making a formal bow
2. have a curved back, nor your butt stuck in the air (razor-straight backs only!)
3. exhale while bowing
4. stand higher than the person you are bowing to
5. put your hands anywhere else but on the front of your thighs when in saikeirei (standing bow)
6. walk while bowing (head nod excluded)
7. sit (in a chair) while bowing (the rare eshaku excluded)
If you are a foreigner only visiting for a few short days, taking part in this custom is up to you. I have had Japanese friends explicitly tell me not to bow and others who have encouraged it.
There are subtle nuances to bowing, many that aren’t covered in this article, so it might be useful to do more background research before you make the mistake of appearing to head-bang through an apology.
Gestures…Big and Small
Bowing isn’t always enough, and sometimes it’s not even necessary. There are other gestures you can use that are associated with apologizing. When you are passing through a crowd, your “excuse me” (sumimasen) will be accompanied with a chopping hand motion.
Your hand cuts up and down through the sea of people while the elbow stays in a fixed position. You will often see people, especially harried salarymen, doing this when they are in a hurry to get off the train during rush hour.
Now let’s not be too hasty
According to the samurai code of chivalry, or Bushido, voluntary ritual suicide was the only way for samurai to die with honor when they had failed in some eminently serious purpose.
You can consider 切腹 (seppuku) as an “apology by suicide”. Samurai used their own sword to calmly and quietly cut (切) through their abdomen (腹), bearing the agony which a weaker man couldn’t stand.
Well, that’s how it’s supposed to go. Usually, driving the blade into your stomach was proof enough of your regret, and thus mercy would be granted… with a swift strike of the sword to the back of your neck.
This final blow would be delivered by a trusted and skilled person, often someone close to the condemned. They were known as the kaishakunin (介錯人).
The flying finger act
How do you sincerely apologize when you’re in the yakuza or Japanese mafia? Well if you need this information for personal use, you probably shouldn’t plan on sipping tea with the queen anytime soon.
The most famous (even in the West) and dramatic apology is the 指詰め (yubitsume), a Japanese ritual in which one’s pinky finger is snipped off portion by portion.
This gruesome act of atonement is also refereed to as 指を飛ばす(yubi o tobasu), which means “flying finger”. In theory, by sacrificing your figure, you demonstrate your sincere regret and willingly accept punishment.
Now that we have examined current and antiquated body language, let’s dive into phrases for apologizing. These range from casual to polite and humble. As always, your tone of voice is crucial and will really make or break an apology.
The magic word
すみません (sumimasen) is your all around good guy phrase, or as my mom would say, your magic word. Sumimasen is used to apologize for something that you have a right to do, but are meanwhile inconveniencing someone else by doing it.
For instance, you’re squeezing your way through a crowd or attempting to get a harried waiter’s attention. In Japan, you do so by either muttering “sumimasen” to no one in particular or chirp out a quick “sumimasen” in the direction of the person whose attention you want.
Thus you can consider すみません as a conglomeration of excuse me, pardon me, thank you, sorry and all that jazz.
Chotto sumimasen, watashi wa tori-sugiri-mashou
“Excuse me, let me pass.” (usually accompanied with the *Chop chop* motion mentioned above)
In practice, when spoken quickly, “sumimasen” often comes out sounding more like “suimasen,” or even “simasen.”
Sumimasen comes from the word sumu written 済む. As a verb, sumu means “finish” or “to come to an end”. However it is more common to not use the Chinese character when writing sumimasen.
Adding a twist to the magic
Let’s consider some variations. ありがとうすみません (arigatou sumimasen) is a polite and straightforward phrase for thanking (ありがとう, arigatou) someone (in an apologetic manner) when that person has gone out of their way to do something for you, such as pouring a cup of tea.
You might translate this as, “Sorry to trouble you, thank you.”
すまない (sumanai) is a contraction of sumimasen and is generally reserved for the older male population, used among friends, and more often heard in the 田舎 (inaka, rural area).
Of course, just like any phrase, it’ll get used by all sorts of people (think of your one weird friend who likes to say “howdy” instead of “hi”). I got a hearty “sumanai” from a 20-something male waiter in downtown Tokyo. Different strokes.
With many things in Japanese, the politeness can be amped up through the past tense. Apologies are no different. Attaching the past tense coupula -deshita can help things along when a plain sumimasen isn’t enough.
One day, I was walking down the street and saw a middle schooler run over a Christmas tree with her bike outside of a bakery. She hopped off her bike to fix the tree, while letting out a mournful “sumimasen-deshita.”
The shopkeeper accepted the すみませんでした with a nod and the girl was ushered inside.
Thankfully neither the girl nor the Christmas tree were permanently damaged.
The standard “I’m sorry”
Let’s say you have trodden on someone’s foot when gallivanting through Shinjuku station, or you accidentally pushed someone over on the train during rush hour.
You’re going to want to say something more polite than “excuse me”. 御免 (ごめん, gomen) is your go-to phrase for when you want to make a straightforward apology. 御 (go) is an prefix that adds a touch of politeness to a word and 免 (men) means excuse/dismissal.
Depending on the situation, you would most likely use gomen with family members or close friends. If you want to reduce the seriousness of the situation, you can add -ね (-ne) to the end to make ごめんね (gomen’ne).
Adding -なさい (-nasai) at the end makes the word imperative or turns it into a command. While commands aren’t normally considered polite, it does actually makes it more formal in this case.
Gomen’nasai (ごめんなさい) is more appropriate than gomen (ごめん) to use with strangers.
Gomen is most easily translated to English as a simple, “I’m sorry.”
By attaching “kudasai” to the end, you can turn this into “gomen-kudasai,” or “please forgive me.” This is usually used in the sense of someone interrupting you during work, or knocking on your door in the middle of dinner.
Now that you have learned gomen and sumimasen, let’s talk about other phrases you can use in a casual setting.
本当に (honto-ni) is the perfect addition to the start of your apology when you want to add a little extra. “Honto” means true, and “honto-ni” means “truly.”
So, when you say “honto-ni-gomensai, you’re basically saying, “I’m truly/really/so sorry.” The same can be done for sumimasen. Honto-ni-sumimasen is used to say “I’m terribly sorry.”
You’re chatting with a friend and oops! you misspoke or misinterpreted what they said.
Here you will want to interject at the beginning of your next sentence with a brief 悪い (warui).
This is the Japanese version of “Sorry, my bad”. Through repetition you can add more emphasis or lighten your tone. This becomes: Ah, warui warui! Warui is considered a bit of a manly term and not normally used by women.
This one also gets use in the workplace, as a suitable apology from a superior to a subordinate.
申し訳ありません (moushiwake arimasen) is one of the more common phrases used for making a formal apology. 申し訳 translates literally as apology or excuse. You can think of this as translating more naturally into, “You have my sincere apologies.”
Let’s say you made a mistake at work and must apologize to your company president. 申し訳ございません (moushiwake gozaimasen) is a polite formal apology. もうし訳わけありません (moushiwake arimasen) is even more polite and reserved for when you made a very big mistake and the company will probably suffer losses due to your misstep.
While the previous two phrases are for the superior/subordinate relationship, 申し訳ない (moushiwake-nai) is more commonly used when you’ve made a fairly serious mistake and need to apologize to a friend or coworker (who is at the same level as you are).
申し訳が立たない (moushiwake-ga-tatanai) can has a similar ending to the previous phrase but is more similar in usage the first two phrases mentioned.
Moushiwake-ga-tatanai can be used to apologize to your manager for making an inexcusable mistake. However, it is more natural to say moushiwake gozaimasen or moushiwake arimasen.
Apparently 申し訳が立たない is a little strange to say out loud and more commonly appears in writing.
When you’re sitting in an office, the click-clack of keyboards is usually accompanied with the occasional 失礼 (shitsurei) as someone enters or leaves the room.
Shitsu-rei is made up of 失 and 礼 which mean “loss, fault,” and “bow, thanks, ceremony,” respectively.
Together, it means “to be impolite,” but is most frequently used as a way to say, “Excuse me, I’m leaving.” When used with the -shimasu ending it becomes more polite. Since it’s said so often, it usually comes out sounding more like, “Tsrei’shimas.”
You’ll also here this used in the phrase for leaving a workplace while others remain behind (even after working hours), osaki-ni-shitsureishimasu (お先に失礼します). Literally, this means “Pardon me for leaving before you,” but in practical use it has more of a flavor of a mildly guilty, “Alright guys, I’m headin’ out!”
Digging up the past
The following keigo (polite) phrases were more commonly used during the Edo era (1603-1868).
ご無礼します (goubureishimasu) is an older form of 失礼し(shitsureishimasu) and is generally not used outside of the service industry and amongst the older population nowadays. For example, you might hear someone dressed in a kimono at a traditional tea ceremony say it as they serve the tea.
That said, if you happen to be travelling around the Aichi or Gifu prefectures, you might hear it in daily use as it’s maintained its popularity there.
One of my male students said that he prefers to say it because it “sounds funny” and to him it feels like he is “digging up the past”. According to the barista at a cafe, this phrase is pretty unpopular nowadays. In fact, his eyes lit up in wonder that I was even aware of the phrase in the first place.
申し兼ねる(moushikaneru) is also another old timer, meaning that you “hesitate to say” something. This apologetic phrase is very humble and not at all commonly heard (then or now). You can consider this the precursor to moushiwake-arimasen.
When disaster strikes
遺憾ながら (ikan’nagara) is used by politicians when making apologies that generally start with “I regret to say…”.
It is also used by T.V. news casters reporting on tragic news such as the death toll during an earthquake.
This word is made up of some hefty kanji, 遺 and 憾 which mean, respectively, “bequeath” and “remorse,” so you can really get a feel for the gravity of this apology.
When someone enters your house, they will utter お邪魔します (o-jama-shimasu). This one is interesting. It’s made up of the kanji for wicked (邪) and witch/demon (魔).
Together as 邪魔, those kanji mean “nuisance.” So, literally, it means, “Sorry for being a bother.” However, in practice, it’s just a set phrase, a normal greeting used when entering someone’s home.
Let’s say you are waiting for fast food at McDonald’s, and even if you have only been waiting for tops ten seconds, the cashier will probably throw an お待たせしました (o-matase-shimashita) at you.
This basically means, “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.” You might also hear お待ちどおさま (o-machido-sama), which has the same meaning, but is slightly more casual.
Apologizing in a pinch
hontou ni gomen nasai
I’m really sorry. informal
taihen moushiwake arimasen
I’m really sorry. formal
gomeiwaku o okakeshite moushiwake arimasen
I’m sorry for all the trouble. very formal
Can you forgive me?
Responding in a Pinch
It’s all good.
anata no sei janai
It’s not your fault.
Please don’t worry about it
Don’t worry about it.
ki ni suru na
Slanging it up
めんご (mengo) is slang for gomen (transposing “go” and “men”). It comes across as insincere especially when trying to say sorry or excuse me . I would personally translate it as “sorry not sorry.”
Just around the -ben
Japan has six to eight dialects, or hougen (方言, “way of speaking”), and we will focus on three of those: Eastern Kanto (Tokyo), Western Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe), and Southern Kyushu (Kagoshima).
Tokyo, which is located in Eastern Japan, is the most commonly spoken and taught dialect in Japan. All of the words listed above fall under Kanto-ben or Tokyo dialect.
While people in Kansai and Kyushu also use Kanto-ben, there are several words that are unique to those areas.
Suman is the Kansai version of sumimasen. It thus can be used to say “I’m sorry,” “excuse me,” and “thanks” in the Kansai region.
There’s also sunmahen, which is considered “correct” Kansai-ben, but really it’s only slightly more polite than suman.
For this reason, it is usually used by men and older people. Some other variations are sunmasen and suimasen, though the distinctions between them are small enough to ignore.
I’m so sorry
Kagoshima is in the south-eastern region of Japan, located at the southern end of the island of Kyushu. There, people say sunmohan when they have bothered someone. It is also used in the same way as sumimasen: to say “excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” etc.
Also in Kagoshima, people there will say gomen’nanse when they’re entering a room to say, “Mind if I enter?” Sort of a reverse shitsurei-shimasu
Not quite a -ben
Okinawa, the southernmost Island of Japan, and Hokkaido, the northernmost, are home to two indigenous populations. The Okinawan (Ryukyuan) language and the Ainu language are linguistically distinct from Japanese and are not commonly spoken today in Japan (even in their native regions).
In Okinawan, 悪さいびーん (わっさいびーん) is a polite phrase that expresses apology and regret.
In Ainu, クヤヤパプ (kuyayapapu) translates roughly in the same way as sumimasen
There are many ways to apologize in Japanese and I am sure I only scratched the surface here. I hope you aren’t feeling too overwhelmed.
Don’t freak out if you can’t remember the exact angle of your bow or the precise phrase you should say. As long as you can convey your regret, I am sure your effort will at least be appreciated.
Unless your in the Yakuza…then…well…better start digging a tiny grave for your poor pinky finger.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.