Podcast 03: How to apologize in Japanese

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 apologizing in Japanese in different situations and contexts. This is perhaps one of the most important skills you will learn when studying Japanese.

Lesson goal
In this lesson you’re going to learn some various ways to apologize in Japanese and what situations to use them in naturally.

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.

すみません Sumimasen
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
B: Thanks

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 Mōshi wake 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.

ご迷惑 Gomeiwaku
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)

お詫び 申し上げます Owabi Mōshi agemasu
This is extremely polite and formal. It is rarely used in speech and usually appears in formal letters of apology.

Dialog examples from the podcast

Example 01
A: あの、変なことして本当にすみません B: どんなこと?
A: ちょっと言えないんですけど
A: ano, hen na koto shite hontou ni sumimasen B: donna koto
A: chotto ienain desu kedo
A: I did something weird, I’m sorry B: What kind of thing?
A: I can’t really say

Example 02
okurete shimatte sumimasen
I’m sorry for being late

Example 03

sumimasen menyuu onegaishimasu Excuse me, may I have the menu please?

Example 04
sumimasen eki wa doko desu ka Excuse me, where is the station

Example 05
A: 明香さんいろいろ助けてくれました。どうぞ、バラです。 B: すみませんアレックス
A: asuka san iroiro tasukete kuremashita. douzo bara desu B: sumimasen arekusu
A: Asuka, you’ve helped me with so many (various) things. Here are some roses. B: Thank you Alex (You shouldn’t have)

Example 06
oisogashii tokoro taihen moushi wake arimasen I’m sorry to disturb you at such a busy time

Example 07
omatase shite shimatte hontou ni moushi wake gozaimasen I’m sorry to have kept you waiting

Example 08
gomeiwaku o okake shite taihen moushi wake gozaimasen deshita I’m extremely sorry to have caused you such trouble

Example 09
taihen gomeiwaku wo okake shite moushi wake gozaimasen deshita. dewa shitsurei shimasu. I’m sorry to have caused you so much trouble. Please allow me to excuse myself now (and leave)