Apologies in Japan can be highly complex. It is critical to understand when to use a particular expression. You need to know several expressions to say sorry in Japanese depending on the nature of your situation otherwise you will make yourself feel even more awkward.
Apologies work differently in Japan than they do in other countries. Saying sorry is much more common and is used in unexpected situations. Below are some of the occasions where Japanese people prefer to apologize:
1. When you accidentally discomfort someone or a group of people. This may seem obvious, but if you cause any trouble, no matter how minor, always offer a genuine apology.
2. When you do someone a favor, it’s polite to apologize for “inconveniencing” them. If you are unfamiliar with Japanese social culture, this may be difficult to grasp. You are not beating yourself up for no reason; rather, you are using an apology as a polite gesture.
3. You would apologize if you ran into someone or dropped something in the West, right? It is the same in Japan. When you genuinely make a mistake or an accident occurs, apologize as you would anywhere else.
When you want to express gratitude to someone. Doesn’t that sound strange? However, apology culture in Japan entails a lot of apologizing where one would expect to be thankful instead.
1. ごめんなさい — Sorry
This is the most common way to say sorry in Japanese. Most Japanese speakers will understand what you mean if you use this phrase in a situation that requires a different apologetic phrase.
However, using this phrase to apologize to superiors is considered impolite, and true fluency means knowing every aspect of the language. You need to understand Japanese culture if you really want to become a fluent Japanese speaker.
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2. 本当にごめんね (ほんとうに ごめんね) — I am so sorry
This touching apology is typically exchanged between best friends or between men and women. When you make a mistake in a romantic situation or when you’re with someone you like, this is a good way to apologize to them.
3. お邪魔します (おじゃま します) — Excuse me for bothering you
This can also be read as “excuse me for disturbing you” or “sorry for interrupting you.” Use this phrase if you find yourself unexpectedly visiting someone’s home or promoting something door-to-door. It can also be used when dialing a phone number.
4. 謝罪いたします (しゃざい いたします) — I apologize
This is a formal way of apologizing typically seen online or in print from celebrities or politicians who did something scandalous.
5. 失礼します (しつれい します) — Excuse me, please
This could be interpreted as a way of saying “Oh, I’m rude” or “Oh, my mistake.” It is very informal, and it is something you would say when reaching past someone, entering a room, or hanging up the phone, rather than when apologizing.
6. 本当にごめんなさい (ほんとうに ごめんなさい) — I am really sorry
It’s best to use this with strangers and friends rather than teachers or people in positions of authority. It is typically used when an innocent mistake is made but you feel awful about it.
7. どうもすみません！— I am so very sorry!
The combination of どうも — thanks and すみません makes this phrase seem a little strange. How do you thank and apologize to someone at the same time? This expression is used when someone assists you with a minor task.
At lunch, a friend pours your tea. A coworker brings you a file that you required. It is definitely more of a “thank you” than an apology. You also need to learn to say thank you in Japanese so that you can distinguish between the two situations and don’t end up using the wrong phrase.
8. 申し訳ありません (もうしわけ ありません) — I feel awful
This is a very formal phrase used to apologize to a boss, a police officer, or anyone else in authority. It can also be used in a formal setting to express deep appreciation for something. This phrase conveys emotion and is only used when apologizing to authority figures.
9. 許して (ゆるして) / 許してください (ゆるしてください) — Forgive me / Please forgive me
When someone is upset with you, whether it’s a friend, a stranger, or someone in authority, use this phrase.
It is a good expression to use if you want to avoid “losing face,” as yelling at someone and making a scene is a major social faux pas in Japan. You will appear much better if you remain calm and ask for forgiveness.
10. お詫びします (おわび します) — I apologize
This is most likely the most formal way of apologizing in Japan. Former Prime Minister Murayama famously used it in his apology to the world for Japan’s involvement in World War II. That’s the level of blunder required to use this one.
11. 弁解の余地がない (べんかいの よちが ない) — There is no excuse
This is used when you mess up and there is no excuse for what you did. Use this phrase if you have hurt your spouse’s feelings or have been caught doing something illegal.
12. すごく ごめんね — I am truly very sorry
If you ever do something that will seriously hurt a close friend’s feelings or dishonor them in some way, this somewhat informal but still seriously genuine phrase would be appropriate. This phrase is also used between children after a fight.
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Q. Which phrase is best to apologize if you are not sure?
A. If you are unsure about how to say sorry in Japanese, gomen nasai (ごめんなさい) is the best choice.
Q. Is it Gomenasai or Sumimasen?
A. ごめんなさい (gomennasai) is strictly used to apologize for something you did wrong. すみません (sumimasen) is used to apologize, too, but the word itself is so much more versatile. It is used in a lot of other situations as well.
Did you know that there are so many different ways to express “sorry” in Japanese? While it is not necessary to memorize all of these phrases as a beginner, it is useful to write down a few of them to keep on hand when preparing for a move or visit abroad.
You can also take notes from several Japanese learning websites to learn the contextual use of different phrases and expressions in Japanese. Keep learning and keep growing!