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How to Say Sorry in Japanese

Greetings are the first thing you learn when you start to learn a new language. “Hello” and “Thank you” are essential, but “Sorry” becomes even more important when it comes to good communication in a foreign culture which often has different customs and values from your original culture. Thus, “sorry” in studying Japanese is one of the most vital things you’ll learn.

One of the noteworthy features of Japanese apologies is that there are various ways to say sorry. How to say sorry in Japanese has variations, both formal and informal, and in the severity of what you’re apologizing for and who you’re apologizing to. Japanese apologies also have to accompany particular gestures in some situations.

Let’s take a detailed look at how to say sorry in Japanese words! Start with a bonus, and download your FREE cheat sheet - How to Improve Your Japanese Skills! (Logged-In Member Only)

  1. Japanese Apology from the Cultural Perspective
  2. “I’m Sorry” in Japanese — Formal
  3. “I’m Sorry” in Japanese — Informal
  4. Conclusion: How Japanesepod101.com Can Help You Learn More Japanese

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1. Japanese Apology from the Cultural Perspective

Japanese greetings are not only words of greeting, but also reflect the very Japanese culture and values, much more so than in other languages. The same is true of Japanese apologies, which are very important for avoiding conflicts and keeping good harmony with others in the society.

和 (wa) or “Harmony” is one of the most important values in Japan. It’s the concept that people prefer to maintain a peaceful unity and conformity with others, and it often involves priority to keep a harmonious state within a social group over its members’ personal interests.

Some Japanese apology words, such as Sumimasen or Gomen (see below), can be often used as a substitution for “thank you” which also contains a nuance of “gratitude.”

This may be very difficult for foreigners to understand, but in Japan, when other people do a favor for you, you’re thankful for it and also feel sorry for using their time and effort for you. In this case, those Japanese apology words are used to express both “thank you” and “sorry.” This comes from an idea in Japanese culture that an attitude of politeness and caring for others is valued, and troubling others is considered bad.


2. “I’m Sorry” in Japanese — Formal

Japanese Woman Bowing in Apology

1- Possible Situations and to Whom to Apologize

Formal Japanese apology words are typically used in official circumstances, such as at work, restaurants, shops, or other official office. They often involve people whom you’re not so close with and situations where certain kinds of official relationships exist: staff/manager, client/customer service provider, etc.

2- Apology Level: General らく

These are very common words and gestures for saying sorry in Japanese in the formal style. You can use these in most social situations.

1. Gestures

When you apologize, you’re supposed to show how sincerely sorry you are for your mistake to the offended person or people (otherwise, it would make them angrier and make the situation even worse!).

The common gesture is to place both of your arms and hands straight along your body, or place one of your hands in front of your lower belly, covering it with your other hand. With either of these gestures, you make a “sorry” expression with your face and your head, and slightly tilt down like when you bow.

2. Words and Phrases

すみません (Sumimasen) — I’m sorry

This is the most common “sorry” in spoken Japanese. This can be translated as “I’m sorry” or “Excuse me” in Japanese. This word is often used as a light apology and can also be “Thank you” in some situations as mentioned earlier.

You say Sumimasen when you bump into someone on the street, when you thrust your way through a crowd, when you spill a glass of water and a waitress has to clean it up, etc.

Example:

  • すみません、水をこぼしてしまいました。
    • Sumimasen, mizu o koboshite shimaimashita.
    • I’m sorry, I spilled the water.
  • すみません、切符はどこで買えますか。
    • Sumimasen, kippu wa doko de kaemasu?
    • Excuse me, where can I buy a ticket?

(When someone picked up something you dropped)

  • すみません、ポケットから落ちたのに気づきませんでした。
    • Sumimasen, poketto kara ochita no ni kizukimasen deshita.
    • Thank you, I didn’t notice it dropped from a pocket.

すみませんでした (Sumimasen deshita) — I am very sorry

This is the past tense of Sumimasen and is more serious. The past tense often sounds more formal and polite in Japanese when it comes to apologies. Unlike Sumimasen, this word doesn’t have the meaning of “Excuse me” or “Thank you.”

Example:

(When you made some mistakes at work and apologize to your boss)

  • すみませんでした、正しいデータで書類をすぐに修正します。
    • Sumimasen deshita, tadashii dēta de shorui o sugu ni shūsei shimasu.
    • I’m sorry, I will revise the document with correct data immediately.

(When you broke a glass at a restaurant)

  • グラスを壊してしまい、すみませんでした。
    • Gurasu o kowashite shimai, sumimasen deshita.
    • I’m sorry for breaking a glass.

Wine Glass Shattering

失礼しました (Shitsurei shimashita) — I’m sorry (for my mistake).

This is another formal and general way to say sorry in Japanese. Shitsurei literally translates as “impoliteness, rudeness, or bad manners,” and the phrase means “I was rude” or “I had bad manners.”

This word can be used the same way as Sumimasen deshita. If you want to say it more politely, use itashimashita instead of shimashita. Itashimashita is the respectful way to say “I did.”

Example:

(When a waiter brought you the wrong dish)

  • 失礼しました、すぐに味噌ラーメンをお持ちします。
    • Shitsurei shimashita, sugu ni miso rāmen o o-mochi shimasu.
    • I’m sorry, I will bring Miso Ramen as soon as possible.

(To your client)

  • 間違った商品の値段をお伝えしまして、失礼いたしました。
    • Machigatta shōhin no nedan o o-tsutae shimashite, shitsurei itashimashita.
    • I’m sorry that I told you the wrong price of the product.

3- Apology Level: Very Deep Apology

3 Ways to Say Sorry

The very deep apology in the formal style is quite serious and is used when the severity of your offense is considered very high. In order to show your serious and sincere apology, adjective words such as Hijō ni (“greatly”), Taihen (“terribly”), or Makoto ni (“truely”) are often added in front of the following apology words.

1. Gestures

For a deep and sincere apology, place both of your arms and hands straight along your body and bow 60 degrees forward, with your head and face down. If it’s a more serious situation, bow 90 degrees. (The different degrees of a bow show the level of severity.)

In the case of an extremely severe situation, you can express your seriousness with Dogeza style. Dogeza involves both of your knees down, your hands placed on the ground, and prostrating yourself with your forehead touching the floor.

In normal daily life, however, Dogeza is the last gesture to do in apology, unless you run over someone with your car and are going to apologize to the victim’s family!

2. Words and Phrases

申し訳ありませんでした (Mōshiwake arimasen deshita) — I am terribly sorry / I sincerely apologize

This is a polite formal apology and you should use this when you’ve done something very wrong.

The word Mōshi comes from the honorific word Mōsu which means “to say” in the form of Kenjō-go. While saying it, you humble yourself or lower your rank below that of the person you’re speaking to.

Wake means “reason,” Arimasen means “there is no,” and Deshita is the past tense. The phrase can be literally translated as: “There was no reason/excuse to say (for what I have done).”

Example:

(When something you bought is already broken and you take it to the shop, a staff member will say this)

  • 大変申し訳ありませんでした。新しいものに交換します。
    • Taihen mōshiwake arimasen deshita. Atarashii mono ni kōkan shimasu.
    • I am terribly sorry. I will replace it with a new one.

(To your boss)

  • 会議に遅刻してしまい、誠に申し訳ありませんでした。
    • Kaigi ni chikoku shite shimai, makoto ni mōshiwake arimasen deshita.
    • I am truly sorry that I came late for the meeting.

申し訳ございませんでした (Mōshiwake gozaimasen deshita) — I am terribly sorry / I sincerely apologize.

This is similar to Mōshiwake arimasen deshita, but this phrase is even more polite and respectful.
Gozaimasen is a negative of Gozaimasu which means “there is/are” in a very polite and respectful way.

Example:

(The president of a company that has conducted an accounting fraud)

  • 大変申し訳ございませんでした。詳細を調査してしかるべき対応をします。
    • Taihen mōshiwake gozaimasen deshita. Shōsai o chōsa shite shikarubeki taiō o shimasu.
    • We are terribly sorry. We will investigate the details and take the appropriate actions.

(When you bumped your car into someone else’s car)

  • 大変申し訳ございませんでした。損害の賠償をします。
    • Taihen mōshiwake gozaimasen deshita. Songai no baishō o shimasu.
    • I am terribly sorry. I will reimburse for the damage.

お詫び申し上げます (O-wabi mōshiagemasu) — I make a deep apology

This is another very polite way to say sorry in Japanese. This phrase is usually used after you apologize with mōshiwake arimasen deshita or mōshiwake gozaimasen deshita. The word O-wabi means “apology” in a polite way, and the phrase is translated as “I state apology” in a polite and respectful way.

Example:

  • 大変申し訳ございませんでした。お詫び申し上げます。
    • Taihen mōshiwake gozaimasen deshita. O-wabi mōshiagemasu.
    • We are terribly sorry. I make a humble apology.

Man Extending Hand in Apology


3. “I’m Sorry” in Japanese — Informal

1- Possible Situations

Informal apologies are used among very close people, such as family, friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, and people you know very well. Note that informal apologies in Japanese should never be used during official occasions because it sounds very casual and it would make things worse.

Saying Sorry

2- Apology Level: Light

These apology words are used in situations where you did something wrong or unpleasant but not so very bad.

1. Gestures

For light apologies, usually you just say sorry without any gestures. In some cases, casually put your palms together in front of your face.

2. Words and Phrases

ごめん (Gomen) — Sorry

The word Gomen originally meant “forgive” or “pardon” in a polite way in Japanese, and it was used to ask for forgiveness or pardon. Nowadays, it has become shorter so that we just use the word meaning “sorry.” When you want to say it in a cuter way or with affection, you add ne to the end: Gomen ne.

Example:

(After a couple fought over something)

  • A (male):
    • ごめん。俺が悪かった。
    • Gomen. Ore ga warukatta.
    • Sorry. I was bad.
  • B (female):
    • ごめんね。私も。
    • Gomen ne. Watashi mo.
    • Sorry. Me too.

(When you are late to meet your friend)

  • 遅れてごめん。
    • Okurete gomen.
    • Sorry for being late.

失礼 (Shitsurei) — Sorry / Excuse me

Shitsurei is the short and casual version of Shitsurei shimashita. This can also be used as “Excuse me.”

Example:

(After you burp/fart)

  • 失礼!
    • Shitsurei!
    • Sorry / Excuse me!

  
(When you thrust your way through a crowd of friends)
  

  • 失礼、通るよ。
    • Shitsurei, tōru yo.
    • Sorry, let me pass.

悪い (Warui) — My bad

It literally means “bad,” but in this case you can use this phrase as “My bad!” However, it sounds a little rough and this word is used mainly by men. Also note that in the example below, you’ll find a variation of how to say sorry I’m late in Japanese.

Example:

(When a boyfriend is late for dinner at a restaurant)

  • A (male):
    • 悪い、ちょっと遅れる。先に行って何か頼んでて。
    • Warui, chotto okureru. Saki ni itte nani ka tanonde te.
    • Sorry, I’ll be a bit late. You can go (to a restaurant) first and order something.
  • B (female):
    • わかった。飲み物頼んでおくね。
    • Wakatta. Nomimono tanonde oku ne.
    • Alright. I will order drinks.

Man and Woman at Nice Restaurant

3- Apology Level: General

The following phrase is the common, informal way to say sorry in Japanese. It’s casual, but still sounds polite. In some cases, this phrase can be used in semi-formal occasions.

1. Gestures

There is no particular gesture you should do for informal and general apologies. However, it’s a good idea to show your sincere feelings using facial expressions and through the tone of your voice.

2. Words and Phrases

ごめんなさい (Gomennasai) — I am sorry

Gomennasai is a more polite version of Gomen.

Example:

  • ごめんなさい。お母さんのパソコン壊しちゃった。
    • Gomennasai. O-kā-san no pasokon kowashichatta.
    • I’m sorry. I broke mom’s computer.

 (At a restaurant)
   

  • ごめんなさい。やっぱり注文はカルボナーラに変更したいです。
    • Gomennasai. Yappari chūmon wa carubonāra ni henkō shitai desu.
    • I’m sorry. I want to change my order to Carbonara.

4- Apology Level: Deep Apology

When you want to express your deep apology in informal occasions, you can add Hontō ni (“truly”) in front of Gomennasai. It looks more polite and sincere when you hold your hands in front of your lower belly, or put your palms together in front of your face.

Example:

  • 本当にごめんなさい。お父さんの車で事故おこしちゃった。
    • Hontō ni gomennasai. O-tō-san no kuruma de jiko okoshichatta.
    • I’m very sorry. I made a car accident with the father’s car.
  • 本当にごめんなさい。君に借りた本を失くした。
    • Hontō ni gomennasai. Kimi ni karita hon o nakushita.
    • I’m very sorry. I lost your book that I borrowed.


Conclusion: How Japanesepod101.com Can Help You Learn More Japanese

We hope this article on how to say sorry in Japanese is helpful and that you have a better understanding of the Japanese language and Japanese culture. You should now know many Japanese ways to say sorry, as “sorry” in learning Japanese is vital.

If you’d like to learn more about the Japanese language, you’ll find more useful content on JapanesePod101.com. We provide a variety of free lessons for you to improve your Japanese language skills.

We also have a YouTube channel where you can enjoy learning the Japanese language by watching videos and listening to actual Japanese pronunciation. If you’re keen on how to read and write Japanese, which consists of three alphabets (hiragana, katakana, and kanji), you can learn more about Japanese gestures, basic Japanese, daily Japanese conversations, 100 Japanese phrases for beginners, and much more.

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