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Sorry in Japanese: Learn How to Properly Apologize in Japanese

A shadow of a man bowing in a gesture of apology

How do you say sorry if you make a faux pas in Japan? Japanese people will say sorry when they feel they’ve done something wrong, when they want to correct an inconvenience—and even when they want to say thank you! Apologizing properly is vital in Japan. Some of you might already know the words すみません (sumimasen) and ごめんなさい (gomen nasai). These are a good place to start, but there are many layers to the etiquette for saying sorry in Japanese. In this article, we’ll look at the many ways to say sorry in Japanese, as well as when to use which words. Let’s get started!

Saying Sorry for a Mistake

Before we get into the different words for saying sorry in Japanese, it’s important to understand that the Japanese language has several levels of formality. If you wish to apologize more casually, it’s better to use either casual Japanese or 丁寧語 (teinigo) (“polite” Japanese).

On the other hand, saying sorry in Japanese 尊敬語 (sonkeigo) or 謙譲語 (kenjougo) (“respectful” or “humble” forms) will come across as more intense. As you consider which of the following words you want to use in your apology, be sure to think about how deeply you want to say, “I’m sorry.”

We will be listing these phrases for sorry in order from most respectful Japanese to most casual.

申し訳ございません。(moushi wake gozaimasen) – What I did was inexcusable.

申し訳ございません (moushi wake gozaimasen) is the humblest way to say sorry in Japanese. It is often accompanied by a deep bow or even a 土下座 (dogeza). Moushi wake gozaimasen literally translates to there is no excuse. Should you find yourself using this phrase to say sorry, it will probably only be in conversation with a superior or with a customer of your own.

If you want to use this phrase to say an emphatic sorry to a friend, you can say: 申し訳ない (moushi wake nai). The meaning remains the same, but the casual form makes it more natural for a conversation within your social circle or age group.

お詫び申し上げます。 (owabi moushi agemasu) – I apologize.

お詫び (owabi) is the Japanese word for sorry that made international news in 1995 when Japanese PM Tomiichi Murayama apologized for Japan’s offenses in World War II. Owabi literally means apology. If you are using this word to say sorry in a formal situation, you would either say お詫びいたします (owabi itashimasu) or お詫び申し上げます (owabi moushi agemasu). Unlike moushi wake gozaimasen, this is a strictly formal way to say sorry in Japanese. There is no informal way to use the word owabi.

謝罪いたします。(shazai itashimasu) – I apologize (written).

When writing a letter of apology, you will want to use the phrase 謝罪いたします (shazai itashimasu). Using a letter or an email to say sorry is quite common in Japanese culture. Shazai itashimasu may come in handy if you decide to study in a Japanese university or work at a Japanese company. The phrase means, I apologize. It is formal and should be kept that way in the context of writing your apology.

反省・後悔しております。 (hansei・koukai shite orimasu) – I regret what I have done.

The phrases 反省しております (hansei shite orimasu) and 後悔しております (koukai shite orimasu) are heartfelt but polite ways to say sorry in Japanese. They have less of a corporate stiffness to them and are often used by famous figures wishing to apologize for public indecency or for committing a crime.

Technically, both of these phrase can be made less formal by replacing –shite orimasu with -shite imasu. However, they are rarely used in informal situations.

お許しください。 (o yurushi kudasai) – Please forgive me.

The apology お許しください (o yurushi kudasai) can either stand alone or come coupled with one of the previous phrases for sorry in Japanese. As we might say in English, “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” o yurushi kudasai might come after an I’m sorry phrase like moushi wake gozaimasen. It literally means, Please forgive me in Japanese.

This can be both a formal and informal way to say sorry. If you want to use it to apologize to a friend or peer, you would say 許してください (yurushite kudasai). Even in its casual form, o yurushi kudasai is still a bit heavier than apologies like gomen nasai and sumimasen.

ごめんなさい。(gomen nasai) – I’m sorry.

ごめんなさい (gomen nasai) is the textbook Japanese phrase for I’m sorry. If you’re unsure about how to say sorry in Japanese, gomen nasai is your best choice. It is acceptable in both formal and informal situations.

If you’re saying sorry casually, you can shorten gomen nasai to gomen ne or even to gomen. This has a friendly nuance to it, so only use it with your friends and peers.

悪い。(warui) – My bad.

悪い (warui) is a very casual way to say sorry in Japanese. You would only use warui to apologize to your friends and peers, and even then, you wouldn’t use this apology for a serious matter. For example, if you stepped on your friend’s toe, you would apologize by saying, Warui, ne! Warui can be used for a past offense; just say Warukatta to imply that you are saying sorry for something that happened a while ago.

Japanese man in a suit apologizing over a phone

Apologizing for an Inconvenience

The Japanese phrase 空気を読む (kuuki o yomu) or “read the air” sums up Japan’s ideas on inconveniencing others: keep a constant eye out so that you don’t inconvenience others. If you do happen to inconvenience someone in Japan, however, here are some ways to say sorry in Japanese!

ご迷惑をおかけして申し訳ございません。 (go meiwaku o okake shite moushi wake gozaimasen) – I’m sorry for this inconvenience.

While the phrase may seem a bit of a mouthful, ご迷惑をおかけして申し訳ございません (go meiwaku o okake shite moushi wake gozaimasen) is an incredibly common Japanese workplace phrase for saying sorry. It’s more of a formal greeting used in emails and service announcements than an actual apology. For example, if your water company left a notice that they would be turning off your water for some construction, they would close with, Go meiwaku o okake shite moushi wake gozaimasen. The phrase literally translates to, I have no excuse for causing you this trouble.

失礼します。 (shitsurei shimasu) – Pardon me.

The phrase 失礼します (shitsurei shimasu) literally translates to, I’m being rude. There are many different ways to use shitsurei shimasu. If you want to use this phrase to say sorry, it’s best to use it in the past tense: shitsurei shimashita means, I’m sorry, that was rude in Japanese. You would use this apology if you accidentally did something rude at dinner or bumped into someone on the street.

Another interesting use for the phrase shitsurei shimasu is when entering an office of one’s superior. When your knock is answered, it’s important to say, “失礼します!” when entering and, “失礼しました!” when leaving. Finally, when leaving your workplace at the end of the day, be sure to say, “お先に失礼します” (O saki ni shitsurei shimasu), or, “Sorry for leaving before everyone else!”

お邪魔します。(O jama shimasu) – Pardon the intrusion.

お邪魔します (o jama shimasu) is similar in meaning to shitsurei shimasu. This is technically an apology (it means, Forgive me for intruding), but Japanese people use it when they are visiting another person’s home or office room. Even though visiting your friend who invited you is not technically wrong, it happens to be one of those things that people apologize for doing in Japan—and o jama shimasu is the apology to use!

When leaving the room or house you visited, be sure to say, o jama shimashita. This is the same phrase, but simply in the past tense.

すみません。 (sumimasen) – Excuse me.

Another well-known Japanese apology, すみません (sumimasen) is especially useful if you’re in a rush and bump into somebody, or perhaps if you are trying to apologize quickly to someone you don’t know very well. Sumimasen translates to Excuse me in English, and it should be used in the same types of scenarios in which one would say, Excuse me.

As with gomen nasai, sumimasen is a fairly versatile way to say sorry in Japanese. It can be used in both formal and informal situations. If you want to make this apology a bit more heartfelt, you can add 大変 (taihen) before it. Taihen sumimasen means, Please excuse me. On the other hand, shortening sumimasen to sumanai or suman makes the apology more casual and light-hearted. It’s important to remember that this casual version of sumimasen has a masculine nuance to it, however.

Japanese woman kneeling and apologizing to another woman

Apologizing to Say Thank You

Several of the words for sorry in Japanese that we’ve listed in this article are also used to say thank you! Those apologies are:

  • ごめんなさい (gomen nasai)
  • すみません (sumimasen)
  • 悪い (warui)
  • 申し訳ない (moushi wake nai)

Any of these phrases, when used upon receiving a favor or a gift, mean thank you in the sense that you are sorry that the other person went out of their way to do such a thing for you. This might seem odd to people from different cultures, but in Japan, it is considered to be very good manners. Don’t be afraid to say Thank you by saying Sorry in Japanese!

If you’d like to learn more about ways to say thank you in Japanese, see our blog post Saying “Thank You” in Japanese: Politeness, Formality and Useful Phrases.

Saying Sorry in Japanese – Conclusion

Saying sorry properly is important in Japanese culture, and there are many ways that you can do so. The weight of your apology will depend not only on the phrase you choose, but also on your tone and body language. When in doubt, however, you can always say gomen nasai or sumimasen!

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