In an extremely polite society where people feel comfortable apologizing for causing even the slightest inconvenience, learning how to humble oneself is very important when studying the Japanese language. Did you know that there are several ways of saying “sorry” or “excuse me” in Japanese? Each word or phrase has a slightly different meaning, and which one you can use depends on the situation and who you are speaking to.
Here are eight ways of apologizing in Japanese, the level of politeness, and how and when to use them.
Probably the least formal on this list is “sumanai,” a casual version of “sumimasen” and mostly used by men in their 40s or 50s. You might hear this among male friends when they’ve made a slight mistake (such as stepping on someone’s toes). Japanese male bosses sometimes use this as well.
As mentioned above, “sumimasen” is a common way of saying “excuse me.” You will hear this in restaurants when a member of the waiting staff approaches a table, on a crowded train or bus when someone is disembarking, or when someone is trying to catch a stranger’s attention. You may also hear it to mean “sorry” for a small error. Both men and women use this word, and if you have taken Japanese lessons, it’s very likely that you have come across this word already.
“Gomen” is a casual way of saying sorry, and unlike “sumimasen,” it is only used for apologizing (not for getting someone’s attention or getting past someone). “Gomen” is used by both genders and is commonly used among friends or from bosses to employees.
“Ne” is a tag question put at the end of a sentence when looking for confirmation or agreement, similar to the English “isn’t it?”, “aren’t you?”, “don’t they?”, etc. To say “gomen ne,” you are apologizing and then looking for confirmation that the person appreciates that you are sorry or forgives you.
It can be used among friends for a fairly large error or mistake, such as forgetting an appointment. It can also be used when you’re asking a favor such as borrowing money; for example, “I forgot my wallet, so can I borrow a couple thousand yen? Gomen ne!” To ask for a favor is potentially inconveniencing someone, so by adding “ne,” you are acknowledging that they are going out of their way to help you.
The most formal and serious apology version of the “gomen” trio is “gomen nasai.” “Nasai” can be used with a few words to make them stronger, such as at the end of verbs to make them into powerful imperatives, e.g. “tabete (please eat)” to “tabe nasai (eat!)” or “yamete (please stop)” to “yame nasai (stop!)”. You may also have heard “okaeri nasai” to welcome people home when they walk through the front door.
“Gomen nasai” can be used by both men and women to sincerely apologize for errors and mistakes. It holds a lot more sincerity than “gomen” or “gomen ne.”
A lot more formal than the previous words is “moshi wakenai desu,” which is commonly used in business settings, especially emails. It holds a similar tone to “gomen nasai.” “Taihen” can be added at the beginning for emphasis; it is similar to saying “I’m so sorry” in English.
“Nai desu” becoming “gozaimasen” is common when using keigo, the polite version of Japanese. “Moshi wake gozaimasen,” then, is an even more polite way of apologizing. You put the other person at a higher level by using keigo. You probably won’t hear this phrase much during your time in Japan, however, unless a waiter or shop worker apologizes profusely for a huge mistake.
“Shitsurei” means to be rude and “shimashita” is the past tense of “to do,” so by saying “shitsurei shimashita,” you are acknowledging that you were rude or did something wrong. People say this phrase to acknowledge their mistake, although it is not only for apologizing.
You will also hear “shitsurei shimashita” or the present tense “shitsurei shimasu” when a waiter or waitress is leaving a table after taking an order, when someone is finishing a conversation over the phone, and when someone is leaving the office.
This phrase can also be changed to “shitsurei itashimashita” in keigo.
During your time in Japan, you are bound to hear these phrases all the time! What do you think about having so many ways to say sorry in Japanese?