Did you know there are over a dozen different ways to say “sorry” in Japanese?
Like in English, there’s “I’m sorry” or “my apologies” in Japanese, too. But there are also different levels of formality and intensity of the apology, depending on the situation.
So how do you apologize in Japanese? How will you know what is the difference between sumimasen and gomen nasai, and when to use which?
Well, that’s what we’re going to break down!
Mastering how to say “I’m sorry” in Japanese is super important for good communication. Not only is it a crucial part of the culture and context, it’s just polite to learn in any language.
So, here’s what we’re going to be learning today:
- How to say “I’m sorry” in formal Japanese
- How to say “I’m sorry” casually in Japanese
- The difference between common Japanese apology phrases like sumimasen and gomen nasai
- The art of the Japanese apology: customs and how to apologize
- Extra ways to ask for forgiveness in Japanese
Let’s dive right in!
How Do You Say “I’m Sorry” in Japanese? – ごめんなさい (Gomen Nasai)
This is the standard way to say “sorry” in Japanese, and you can use it in most situations.
ごめんなさい (gomen nasai) is the polite way to say “I’m sorry,” but you can make it more casual, too. Switching it to ごめん (gomen, masculine) or ごめんね (gomen ne, feminine) makes it more casual and lighthearted for minor issues.
On the flip side, you can make it more sincere by adding 本当に (hontou ni), to say 本当にごめんなさい (hontou ni gomen nasai) which means “I’m truly sorry.”
Be careful, though, because this phrase is not a strong enough apology if you have to say you’re sorry to someone “above” you in Japanese society (like your boss!). In that case, you would use…
“I’m Terribly Sorry” – 申し訳ございません (Moushiwake Gozaimasen)
If you did something wrong at work, this would be the phrase to use. It’s in humble speech and shows your sincerity more than ごめん(ね).
申し訳ございません (moushiwake gozaimasen) is also said if you do something wrong in any situation where you must apologize to someone of authority. That could mean law enforcement, too.
You’ll also hear 申し訳ありません (moushiwake arimasen), which essentially means the same thing, but is slightly less polite because it’s not in humble speech.
“Excuse Me” in Japanese – すみません (Sumimasen)
すみません (sumimasen) is a super common way to apologize in most situations. It’s used in the same way as “excuse me” is in English. If you need to pass someone in a tight space, you’d say すみません. Bumped into someone by accident? “ああ、すみません！” (Aa, sumimasen, “Ah, I’m sorry!”)
What’s the Difference Between Sumimasen and Gomen Nasai?
I’m glad you asked! ごめんなさい (gomen nasai) is only used to apologize for something you did wrong. すみません (sumimasen) is used to apologize, too, but also used to get someone’s attention. It’s not necessarily casual but it’s the more laid-back apology in Japanese.
So, sumimasen vs. gomen nasai is a bit nuanced, and they’re often used interchangeably. But the main the is, sumimasen isn’t just for apologizing.
“Please Excuse Me” – 失礼します (Shitsure Shimasu)
失礼します (shitsure shimasu) has a few different uses, but this is one. It’s most common to hear in the workplace, especially if someone helped you with something. You use this phrase to apologize for the inconvenience, as a polite way of saying “thanks for your help.”
You can also use this phrase when leaving work. If you leave before anyone else at work, you’ll say お先に失礼します (osaki ni shitsure shimasu / “Excuse me, I have to go now”) to apologize for leaving before they do. They’ll reply with お疲れ様でした (otsukaresama deshita), which means both “You must be tired” and “Thanks for all your hard work.”
This phrase is also used to say, “I’m sorry for being rude” or “I’m sorry for messing up.”
“Please Forgive Me” in Japanese – 許してください (Yurushite Kudasai)
This is another deep, sincere apology. You don’t use this one lightly. Saying 許してください (yurushite kudasai) is a much more intense apology for when you’ve made someone mad. It doesn’t matter who it is or their social level compared to yours. This is the phrase you use when you want to ease tensions by asking for forgiveness.
By the way, in case you were wondering, this phrase comes from the word 許し (yurushi), which means “forgiveness” in Japanese.
“My Apologies” in Japanese – 謝罪いたします (Shazai Itashimasu)
謝罪いたします (shazai itashimasu) is a super intense and formal way to apologize. It uses the humble form いたします (itashimasu) to emphasize the depth of the apology. 謝罪 (shazai) is the Japanese word for “apology”, so it’s like saying “My deepest apologies” or “I sincerely apologize.”
This isn’t often heard, though. It’s mostly used in writing by politicians, celebrities, and the like, who have to issue a public written apology for a scandal that’s released to the press.
“Sorry to Bother You” – お邪魔します (Ojama Shimasu)
A standard 挨拶 (aisatsu) phrase for interrupting or bothering someone is お邪魔します (ojama shimasu). You can use this any time and to anyone who you may be interrupting.
For instance, if you knock on a colleague’s office to ask a question at work, you would knock and say お邪魔します. You also use this phrase any time you enter someone’s home, whether you were invited over or not. And whenever you leave, you say the same phrase in past tense: お邪魔しました (ojama shimashita / “Sorry to have bothered you”).
“I’m Sorry for the Inconvenience” – ご迷惑をおかけして、申し訳ありません。(Gomeiwaku Wo Okake Shite, Moushiwake Arimasen)
This is a humble, polite way to apologize to someone for helping you. It’s actually more of a way of saying “thank you” than an apology. But in Japanese, it’s more polite to apologize for needing help than it is to say “thank you.”
There are two variations of this phrase:
- ご迷惑をおかけして、申し訳ありません。 (gomeiwaku o okake shite, moushiwake arimasen)
- ご迷惑をおかけして、すみません。(gomeiwaku o okake shite, sumimasen)
They both mean the same thing. But 申し訳 (moushiwake) is the humble and more polite form of すみません (sumimasen). So the humble form is more appropriate if you’re apologizing to someone superior to you, while the すみません version is a good phrase for anyone who has helped you.
“My Bad” – 悪い悪い (Warui Warui)
悪い悪い (warui warui) is used exactly the same as “My bad” in English. It’s the most casual way to apologize, and should only be used with friends.
“Have Mercy” – 勘弁してください (Kanben Shite Kudasai)
No, I'm not referencing Uncle Jesse’s catchphrase from Full House.
In Japanese, if you’ve made a huge mistake, it’s necessary to apologize in more than one way. So usually, you’ll say something like 申し訳ございません。勘弁してください。(Moushiwake gozaimasen. Kanben shite kudasai). This more or less means “I’m so terribly sorry, please have mercy on me.”
勘弁してください (kanben shite kudasai) may seem odd to English speakers, as we wouldn’t ever use a phrase like it to apologize (unless in a soap opera!). But in Japanese, this is one of the most intense ways to apologize for major mistakes. That could be something that deeply hurt a loved one (like cheating or keeping a hurtful secret), or messing up on a project so bad at work that you lost the company a lot of money (ouch).
The Art of the Japanese Apology: How Do You Apologize in Japanese?
Apologies are a bit different in Japanese because they’re intrinsically tied to the values of Japanese culture.
In Japan, it’s crucial to maintain “face” by keeping up polite, proper appearances. The concept of “face” plays a huge role in Japanese society. You always want to be seen as a team player, conscientious of your actions, and responsible for your mistakes.
The other important aspect of Japanese culture is 和 (wa), which means “harmony.” The Japanese value peace and harmony in the society above almost anything else. So, the art of apologizing in Japanese is a big factor.
You may have already noticed from the examples I’ve shared that in Japanese culture it’s common to apologize to someone when they do a favor for you, rather than say thank you. That’s because you’re grateful, but also didn’t want to cause them an unnecessary burden. You don’t want to disturb the harmony by causing others trouble, so it’s better to apologize.
When you apologize, it’s good manners to bow at the same time. When you bow, you can place your hands along both sides of your legs and bow (a bit more masculine). Or place your hands right below your navel, one on top of the other, and bow (a bit more feminine). Again, this is to show that you are regretful and humble. The deeper the bow (and the more from your body you bow rather than your head), the deeper the apology.
In the case of 勘弁してください (kanben shite kudasai), you may even drop to your knees and bow, dropping your forehead to the floor. This is the deepest level of apology possible in Japanese culture, and it’s called 土下座 (dogeza). You’ll see this in anime and dramas more often than in real life, though.
And, as I mentioned earlier, the bigger the mistake, the more you must apologize. For a small error you can mutter ごめん(ね). But when it comes to big mistakes, you need to use two, three, or even four of these sayings, as well as bowing at the appropriate level.
Save Face and Apologize the Right Way
Now you know the basics of apologizing in Japanese! From the most common, casual ways, to the extreme and intense apologies — you’ve got it all covered now.
While some of these will be more useful to you in everyday life, it’s a good idea to learn all of them… In case you ever need it!
This is by no means an exhaustive list (there are so many ways to apologize!), nor all the ways to conjugate the phrases above. You could change them to more formal or informal, present or past tense, etc. But most of that will come naturally to you as you continue to learn Japanese, and this is a great place to start.
Because culture does play such a huge part in the language and saying “I’m sorry” in Japanese… Why not learn more Japanese culture tidbits?