Apologizing has deep roots in Japanese culture. Japanese people apologize more than Western people. That’s why it is important to learn how to apologize correctly with the situation and status of the people in mind. In Japan, by apologizing you don’t express only feelings of regret or failure, but you also humble yourself . There is more behind an apology than just saying gomen or sumimasen. This blog post will teach you many other expressions.
As you will see in this Japanese lesson for beginners, when apologizing you are supposed to humble yourself. And don’t forget to bow. When apologizing, the bow should be at 45 degrees (saikeirei). It is fine to also bow multiple times.
Don’t bow while speaking. First, say the sentence, then bow.
Casual or neutral apologies
The phrases below are commonly used in different situations. If you are not sure what apology to use, say Sumimasen.
Sumimasen deshita (past tense)
This expression can be used in various situations. For example, you stepped on someone’s foot in crowded bus. It means I’m sorry or Excuse me. Maybe it is the first apology word you have learned. When apologizing for something that happened in the past, use the past tense.
Sumimasen, eki wa doko desu ka. (Excuse me, where is the station?)
Sumimasen, mou ichido itte kudasai. (Excuse me, please say it again)
When apologizing to close friends or family, you use the casual phrase, Gomen (meaning: I’m sorry). If you want to sound more polite, say Gomen nasai. Although it is more polite, use it only with your friends. For example, when your friend is mad at you for some reason. Never use it in business situations or when apologizing to your boss or superiors.
Gomen, ne (Sorry about that / Sorry okay?) – used mostly by girls
Gomen, watashi no sei de. (Sorry, it was my fault)
Hontou ni gomen nasai (I am really sorry)
There are not many slang phrases, because when apologizing you should show some humbleness. When using slang, you might sound rude. So, use these phrases wisely.
Warukatta (past tense)
If you want to apologize to a close friend, use these slang expressions. Both mean Sorry or My bad.
A phrase used by men when apologizing casually. Women don’t use this phrase at all.
It is a slang version of Shitsurei and it is used only by business men (サラリーマン, Sararīman).
Sumanakatta (more formal)
This is a slang version used by old men or by male superiors apologizing to their subordinates.
Use formal phrases when apologizing to customers, or business partners. There are quite a lot of expressions, so let’s talk about them one after another.
Kōkai shite imasu
Meaning: I regret it. If you want to say that you regret something, you can use this expression. But be careful, because it has slightly softer meaning than regular apologies. Think about how much regret you want to show.
Gomeiwaku wo kakete sumimasen (deshita)
Gomeiwaku wo kakete gomen nasai
Meaning: Sorry for the inconvenience / Sorry for troubling you. A formal phrase you should use when you caused someone trouble.
Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu
As I mentioned in earlier post on Japanese greetings, this phrase is used when leaving office sooner than other co-workers. It works as an apology for leaving as well as saying goodbye.
Shitsurei shimashita (past tense)
Meaning: I am rude / I was rude. When entering a room, Japanese people say Shitsurei shimasu. Use this form also when apologizing for something you have done in social situations. For example, you spill your beer on the table or you pass through people on a crowded street. Keep in mind that this phrase shows less feelings than the next expressions.
Taihen shitsurei itashimashita
When you are in a real trouble for making a mistake, use this extreme polite version.
Another use of this phrase is when a tea ceremony is ending. The host says Shitsurei itashimashita. It signalizes the guests, that the ceremony has ended and they may leave.
Mōshiwake arimasen (deshita)
Meaning: I apologize, or It’s inexcusable. Use it when you have done something really bad or a big mistake. Also, when you are apologizing on your knees. These phrases are useful when apologizing to superiors or people with higher status than you. For example: I am often late for work, so since it is workplace-related, I would use this expression to apologize to my boss:
Okurete mōshiwake arimasen – I am sorry for being late
Taihen mōshiwake arimasen
Taihen mōshiwake gozaimasen
Meaning: I’m terribly sorry. You should use this phrase if, for example, you or your child broke a neighbor’s window.
Gomeiwaku wo okakeshite sumimasen
Gomeiwaku wo okakeshite orimasu
A very polite formal expression that means: I’m sorry for any trouble I caused. You can see its variations e.g. on construction signs.
Owabi mōshi agemasu
This is probably the most formal and polite expression. It is often used in formal apology letters. You can translate it as: I apologize.
Makoto ni moushiwake gozaimasen deshita
Some people may add this one to the list. But, it is an archaic expression used in the past by samurai or ninja. So, don’t use it.
How to respond to apology
If someone apologized, you need to respond somehow. But, do you know how?
If it is not a big deal, you don’t have to say anything. Just bow your head a little bit. If a close person apologized, you can say casually Iya Iya, ki ni shinaide (don’t worry about it).
If the person who is apologizing needs assurance that everything is really fine, try to use Daijoubu desu (It’s OK), or Mondai nai desu (It’s not a problem).
In case a complete stranger apologized to you and the person’s status or age seems higher than yours, apologize too and bow several times. You should say Sumimasen, Gomen nasai, or Shitsurei shimasu.
Tell me, what expression you already used and in what situation?