Sorry In Japanese: How To Apologize Like You Mean It

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If you’ve watched some anime or Japanese drama, you might’ve noticed that the characters tend to apologize a lot. A few familiar words for sorry in Japanese might be gomen nasai (ごめんなさい) or sumimasen (すみません).

While the words for ‘sorry’ in Japanese vary in degree, there are also physical ways to express your sincerest apologies, like bowing.

In a general context, we say sorry when we’ve caused inconvenience to a person. Sometimes, our apologies aren’t complete without excuses. In Japan, there are other different situations in which people apologize.

Sometimes, instead of saying ‘thank you’, Japanese people apologize when someone does them a favor. Why? Because we caused someone ‘inconvenience’, it is considered polite to apologize for the trouble they went through to help. 

This way, we are not only apologizing for the trouble but also thanking them for it! Apologizing can be a deep and sincere way of showing appreciation to someone in Japanese culture.

To discover words, phrases, and actions you can use to say sorry in Japanese, read on!

Gomen nasai

ごめんなさい

I’m sorry

One of the first words we encounter while learning Japanese is gomen nasai (you might also see it written as gomenasai). It is the standard phrase for sorry in Japanese that can be used in almost any situation. 

Some shorter, more casual forms are gomen (ごめん), which is more masculine, and gomen ne (ごめんね) which sounds more feminine. To add more sincerity, you can attach hontou ni (本当に / ほんとうに) before gomen nasai.

This, however, isn’t the go-to phrase when it comes to a workplace context! You can use the next words in the list for apologizing to your superiors.

Example:

Watashi ni ke-ki wo taberareta, gomenasai.
私にケーキを食べられた、ごめんなさい。
わたし に ケーキ を たべられた、 ごめんなさい。
I’m sorry for eating your cake (without permission).

Sumimasen

すみません

I’m sorry/Excuse me

This is one of the most common ways to apologize in Japanese! Sumimasen can be used in any kind of situation where you have to give a light apology, such as when you accidentally bump into someone. The past form sumimasen deshita (すみませんでした) makes this phrase more formal.

To emphasize your apology, you can add doumo (どうも).

Sumimasen isn’t only used to say sorry. It also means ‘excuse me’ for getting people’s attention.

Examples:

Konban oai dekinakute sumimasen.
今晩お会いできなくてすみません。
こんばん おあい できなくて すみません。
I’m sorry that I can’t meet you tonight.

Sumimasen, eki wa doko desu ka?
すみません、駅はどこですか。
すみません、 えき は どこ です か。
Excuse me, where is the train station?

Anata wo konna ni nagai aida matasete, doumo sumimasen.
あなたをこんなに長い間待たせて、どうもすみません。
あなた を こんなに ながい ま またせて、 どうも すみません。
I’m really sorry for making you wait for a long time.

Moushiwake gozaimasen

申し訳ございません

I’m terribly sorry

Moushiwake gozaimasen is one of the best ways to apologize for something you did wrong at work. If you need to apologize to someone of authority – your boss, a traffic enforcer, a senior – this phrase works best.

Another form you might encounter is moushi arimasen (申し訳ありません / もうしありません), however, use it with caution as this is less formal.

A much more formal form, focusing more on saying sorry for an inconvenience you caused would be gomei okakeshite moushiwake gozaimasen (ご迷惑おかけして申し訳ございません / ごめいおかけしてもうしわけございません). This directly translates to ‘I’m sorry for the inconvenience.’ Gomei (ご迷惑 / ごめい) is a noun that means ‘bother’ or ‘inconvenience’.

Moushiwake (申し訳 / もうしわけ) means ‘apology’ or ‘excuse’, while gozaimasen is the negative polite form of aru (ある), which means ‘to be’. This would translate to ‘there is no excuse’.

Example:

Kono tabi wa watashi no fuchuui ni yori gomeiwaku okakeshita koto moushiwake gozaimasen.
この度は私の不注意によりご迷惑おかけしたこと申し訳ございません。
この たび は わたし の ふ ちゅうい により ご めいわく おかけした こと もうしわけ ございません。
I deeply apologize for the inconvenience caused by my carelessness.

Shitsurei shimasu

失礼します

Please excuse me 

This is another handy phrase for the workplace. The word shitsurei means ‘discourtesy’ or ‘impoliteness’. To make this more formal, you may opt to use shitsurei itshimashita (失礼いたしました / しつれいいたしました). It can also be a way to express gratitude, like ‘thanks for helping me’.

Shitsurei shimasu is a way to say ‘please excuse me’, when you must leave before another coworker. In Japan, it’s usually considered rude to leave work before your boss or superior does, which is why working overtime is a popular (but unhealthy) practice in workplaces.

Here’s an example conversation you might have when finishing work:

You:
Shitsurei shimasu.
失礼します。
しつれいします
Please excuse (my rudeness), I will be leaving early.

Coworker:
Otsukaresama deshita!
お疲れ様でした!
おつかれさま でした!
Good work today!

Shazai itashimasu

謝罪いたします

My apologies

Shazai itashimasu isn’t heard very often in a normal conversation because it is a very sincere apology. Politicians or celebrities use this when they must publicly apologize for a scandal.

The word shazai (謝罪 / しゃざい) means ‘apology’. Itashimasu is a humble form used when referring to one’s own actions. This phrase will translate to ‘I’m sorry for my actions’.

Yurushite kudasai

許してください

Please forgive me

From the meaning alone, we can tell that this is another intense way to apologize in Japanese! When you’ve done something really bad then you can use yurushite kudasai to ask for the person’s forgiveness. This can be used in less formal situations.

Yurushite is the -te form of yurusu (許す / ゆるす), a verb that means ‘to forgive’, ‘to pardon’, or ‘to excuse’.

A young Japanese couple sitting on opposite ends of a sofa, looking like they've just had a fight

Example: 

Anata no pātī ni ikenai koto dou ka yurushite kudasai.
あなたのパーティーに行けないことどうか許してください。
あなた の ぱーてぃー に いけない こと どうか ゆるして ください。
Please forgive me for not being able to go to your birthday party.

Owabi moushi agemasu

お詫び申し上げます

I offer my deepest apologies

Similar to shazai itashimasu, this phrase is used in formal situations, usually in business. You might hear this from companies in situations where their reputation is damaged and they must apologize for their shortcomings. Owabi moushi agemasu is also used in trains or airports when there are accidents or delays caused by bad weather.

This expression is rarely used in speech but appears more often in formal written letters of apology.

Owabi (お詫び / おわび) is another word for ‘apology’, and moushi agemasu (申し上げます / もうしあげます) is a humble expression that means ‘to express’ or ‘to offer’.

Example: 

Kono tabi wa tousha no furaito ga chien itashimashite fukaku owabi moushi agemasu.
この度は当社のフライトが遅延いたしまして深くお詫び申し上げます。
この たび は とうしゃ の フライトが ちえんいたしまして ふかく おわび もうしあげます。
We deeply apologize for the delay in our flight.

Ojama shimasu

お邪魔します

Excuse me for disturbing you

This is a phrase used when we disturb or interrupt someone, especially at work. This can be used in both formal and informal settings.

It is also polite to use this phrase before entering someone’s home.

Jama (邪魔 / じゃま) means ‘hindrance’ or ‘intrusion’. The honorific prefix ‘o’ (お) makes it more polite.

Example:

Ojama shimasu. Kono bunsho wa dareka ni agemasu ka?
お邪魔します。この文書は誰かにあげますか。 
お じゃまします。 この ぶんしょ は だれ か に あげます か。 
Sorry to bother you, but who should I give this document to? 

Kanben shite kudasai

勘弁してください

Please have mercy

This one might sound a bit funny. You might hear this one in some anime or drama instead of real life. But kanben shite kudasai can be used in really bad situations! Like when you hurt your significant other or cause an accident at work that puts your company’s reputation in trouble – oh no!

Kanben (勘弁 / かんべん) means ‘forgiveness’ or ‘pardon’. 

Warui

悪い

My bad

This is a very informal way to say ‘my bad, my bad’. Warui can be repeated twice in a conversation, but it’s considered rude to use it with your boss or seniors! Use this only among your closest friends.

In this context, warui translates to ‘unforgivable’ or ‘at fault’.

Example:

Warui! Pātī ga wasurechatta!
悪い!パーティーが忘れちゃった!
わるい! パーティー が わすれちゃった!
My bad! I forgot about the party!

Mou shimasen

もうしません

I won’t do it again

After apologizing, you can promise not to make the same mistake by saying mou shimasen. However, in most situations, only children and people in intimate relationships use this.

a small Japanese girl looks upset and her mother puts an arm round her as if to apologise

For example, a young child hides their sister’s favorite toy as a joke, which makes her cry. When the parent makes them say sorry, the child at fault may say:

Omocha wo kakushita gomen ne. Mou shimasen.
おもちゃを隠したごごめんね。もうしません。
おもちゃ を かくした ご ごめん ね。 もうしません。
I’m sorry I hid your toy. I won’t do it again.

Actions speak louder than words

Despite the many words and phrases that we can use to say sorry in Japanese, our body language is still the most powerful way to convey our sincerity.

In Japanese culture, bowing is a common action that you can see daily – to greet, to thank, and to apologize. There is also dogeza (土下座 / どげざ), the most extreme way to apologize. To help you understand the nuances behind different types of Japanese bows, this video by That Japanese Man Yuta may help!

Bowing

A small nod of the head works for light apologies, such as after bumping into someone, dropping a few papers, or accidentally grabbing the same product as somebody else at the supermarket. Of course, it can be accompanied by the handy phrase sumimasen and eye contact with the person.

Deeper bows can go from 15-degrees up to a 90-degree angle bend of the body, whether sitting or standing. The bigger the mistake or the more formal the situation, the deeper you must bow; and the deeper you bow is, the more sincere your apology will be.

In place of bowing, some people opt to place their palms against each other (as if they were praying) while stating their apology. This action is more acceptable among close friends, however.

Dogeza 

You might be familiar with this funny video called ‘Extreme Japanese Apologizing’ that went viral around 2014. These are some hilarious ways to spruce up the deepest form of apology in Japan: dogeza.

The dogeza (土下座 / どげざ) is the deepest form of bowing to apologize in Japan. It is reserved for serious situations that have huge consequences.

In the past, it was a more common occurrence among people of lower status pleading in front of noblemen, or even samurai when faced with life-or-death situations. Nowadays, it is rarely done except in forms of public apology and media (like anime or manga).

To perform dogeza, someone has to get on their hands and knees on the ground and lower their forehead to the space between their hands.

It is the most shameful position in Japanese culture because the ground is considered unclean. Getting on the ground this way means lowering your pride and becoming as filthy as the ground to beg for one’s forgiveness.

The thee kanji that make up dogeza (土下座) are quite straightforward. Following their onyomi readings, do (土) means ‘soil’ or ‘ground’, ge (下) means ‘below’ or ‘inferior’, and za (座) means ‘squat’ or ‘sit’.

How to say sorry in Japanese

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Thea Ongchua

Thea is a freelance content writer, currently majoring in Japanese studies. She likes to create art and draws inspiration from film and music. Thea was inspired to study Japanese language and culture by reading the literary works of Haruki Murakami and Edogawa Ranpo.

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