Why are the Japanese always sorry for something?

  • Sumimasen – this is a Japanese word meaning “I am sorry” or “Excuse me”, which we always keep saying to one another.
    If you have been to Japan, you might wonder why people always apologize. I, for instance, say “sumimasen!” more than 10 times a day (I’m not exaggerating), but I don’t always mean it as an apology. “Sumimasen” is a useful expression for the following situations.

    If you hear “sumimasen” in Japan and wonder what exactly it means, from now on, you will be able to refer it to the following situations.

    1. Sumimasen for “I am sorry”

    This is what the word means literally. “I am sorry”.
    For instance, you are supposed to say “sumimasen!” when you spill water on someone’s shirt at a restaurant.
    There are more kinds of expressions that are used for deeper apologies other than “sumimasen” especially in a business situation, but we say that to our boss or coworkers, too.

    2. Sumimasen for “Excuse me”

    We use it when we need to say “Excuse me” as well.
    When we enter a restaurant and decide what to order, we call a waiter over: “sumimasen!”
    If we have to talk to our colleague who looks very busy at the moment, first we say “sumimasen” and make sure it is alright to talk to him/her. This “sumimasen” implies “I am sorry to bother you” as well.

    3. Sumimasen for “Thank you”

    This sounds pretty irregular, but we add “sumimasen” to the word “Thank you” a lot.
    if you translate it into English, it will literally be:

    A “Here you are.”
    B “Oh, thank you. I’m sorry.”

    It may sound weird, but it is a very natural expression in Japanese, and is used when somebody does something good for us.
    And, “sumimasen” in such conversations implies neither No.1 nor No.2 of the above meaning, it implies “I apologise that you spend your time to do this for me.”

    If you feel sick on a train and someone offers you his or her seat, you can, of course, say “Thank you very much”, but it would sound better if you add “sumimasen”.

    I am sorry, excuse me, and thank you… “sumimasen” is used in various situations. It isn’t too casual and not overly polite, so this is one of the most useful Japanese expressions.

    If you hear it while you are staying in Japan, please try to think about what that particular “sumimasen” meant in that situation!