How do you say ‘Sorry’ in Japanese? — Meaning of ‘Sumimasen!’ and Pronunciation

According to CBC, Canadian people like apologising. I think that Japanese people love apologising too, even more than Canadians.

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How do you say ‘Sorry’ in Japanese?

In Japanese, we have a few terms to express our apology from the most polite way to the casual style. The most useful phrase is ‘Sumimasen’ (すみません), which is pronounced ‘Su-mi-ma-sen,’ or sometimes ‘Su-i-ma-sen’ (すいません) — the “m” disappears in the second syllable.

— Excuse me. Sorry.

It means ‘Excuse me’ or ‘Sorry,’ but it even sometimes corresponds to ‘Thank you’ in English.

When can we use ‘Sumimasen’?

a Japanese restaurant

When you want to get someone’s attention in a restaurant, you will say, “Sumimasen!”

When you want to get someone’s attention in shops or restaurants, you can say, “Sumimasen!”

Or, when you want to ask someone the way on the street, you can say, “すみません!”

Someone bumps into your shoulder in a station or a crowded junction. You will hear, “Sumimasen!”

Also, when you want to ask somebody to pass the salt to you at the table, you can say, “すみません!”

More situations of ‘Sumimasen’

There are other Japanese phrases for apologising, but the first phrase you must remember is ‘すみません’, I think.

Including this phrase, you will often hear Japanese people apologising. For example;

In shops, restaurants or banks, sometimes you have to wait for a while. After your waiting, you finally will be served, and then the shop attendant may say, “すみません(Sorry), we have kept you waiting for so long.”

Would you be apologised to in the same situation in your country? I imagine that you more likely hear “Thank you for waiting” in English.

Another example; you want to offer a job to freelance workers, but Japanese freelancers cannot manage the time for you, they may say, “すみません(Sorry), I don’t have enough time to do it.” They don’t have to apologise because they are busy doing some other work. It’s not their fault, but we, Japanese people, want to say sorry in those cases.

Japanese people like the word ‘Sumimasen’

I think Japanese people feel sorry about rejecting somebody’s offer or suggestion, or when they create some inconvenience to others. Some people consider this attitude as being ‘polite’.

So if you ask somebody something in English in Japan and they cannot speak English, they may say, “すみません(Sorry), I cannot speak English,” even though it is not their fault not to be able to speak English.