One of the most important phrases you can learn in any language is a genuine apology.
Imagine traveling to a different country and accidentally offending someone or making a small but substantial mistake. It happens! Social norms are so different around the world that it can be hard to get everything right.
But you don’t want to be caught tongue-tied when it comes to making an apology.
In Japan, specifically, what calls for an apology can be quite different from elsewhere in the world.
Besides knowing when to apologize, you also need to know how to apologize: the phrases to use for specific situations can vary quite a bit.
As a result, there are many different ways to apologize in Japanese, all with their own nuances.
We’ve listed and explained 17 ways to apologize in Japanese so you’ll never be stuck in an uncomfortable situation! Let’s learn the art of the Japanese apology.
When Is It Appropriate to Apologize in Japan?
As we mentioned above, apologies work a bit differently in Japan than in places like America. Saying sorry is much more common and is used in situations you might not expect.
Here are some occasions when it’s necessary to apologize in the Japanese culture:
- When you genuinely inconvenience someone or a group of people by accident. This might seem like common sense, but if there’s a situation in which you cause any trouble, no matter how small, be sure to give a genuine apology.
- When someone does you a favor, it’s considered polite to apologize for “inconveniencing” them. This may be hard to understand if you aren’t used to Japanese social culture. You aren’t necessarily beating yourself up for no reason, but rather using an apology as a polite gesture in lieu of outwardly thanking someone.
- All the situations that would require an apology anywhere. In the West, you’d apologize for bumping into someone or dropping something, right? It’s no different in Japan. Apologize when you genuinely make a mistake or when an accident happens, just like you would anywhere else.
- When you want to thank someone. Sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it? However, apology culture in Japan involves a lot of apologizing where you’d imagine one would be thankful instead. It’s not always right to apologize in place of a thankful gesture, but a lot of the time it can be appropriate.
How to Say Sorry in Japanese with 17 Expressions
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Apologies for Everyday Use
1. ごめんなさい — Sorry
This is definitely the most common way to apologize in Japanese and is a sort of catch-all term.
Generally, if you use this phrase in a situation that calls for a different apologetic phrase, most Japanese speakers will know what you mean.
However, it’s considered rude to use this phrase to apologize to superiors and real fluency means learning all the nooks and crannies of a language!
2. 本当にごめんね (ほんとうに ごめんね) — I am so sorry
This very heartfelt apology is typically used between best friends or between men and women. When you screw up in a romantic situation or when you’re with someone you’re crushing on, this would be a good way to apologize to them.
3. すみません — Excuse me
This is one of the most common ways to apologize in Japan. It’s used as a more lax apology, such as when you bump into someone on the street or commit a very mild social faux pas.
すみません often seems interchangeable with 御免なさい, but it’s not: すみません can be used in a non-apologetic situation while ごめんなさい is strictly used for apologizing.
4. お邪魔します (おじゃま します) — Excuse me for bothering you
Another way of reading this is as “excuse me for disturbing you” or “sorry for interrupting you.”
Use this phrase if you suddenly have to visit someone’s home or if you’re promoting something door-to-door. It can also be used when calling someone on the phone.
5. 謝罪いたします (しゃざい いたします) — I apologize
This is a formal way of apologizing typically seen online or in print from celebrities or politicians who did something scandalous.
6. 失礼します (しつれい します) — Excuse me, please
Roughly, this could be seen as a way of saying “Oh, I’m rude” or “Oh, my mistake.”
It’s very informal and used less as a way to apologize and more as something you’d say when reaching past someone, entering a room or hanging up the phone.
7. これは失礼しました (これは しつれい しました) — I’m sorry about this
This phrase is similar to 失礼します but holds a bit more stock. It’s a formal way to apologize to a co-worker or a stranger if you genuinely feel like you screwed up.
Say you bumped into a coworker at the office that you’re unfamiliar with and knock the binder right out of his arms. While helping him pick it up, you’d say これは失礼しました.
8. 本当にごめんなさい (ほんとうに ごめんなさい) — I am really sorry
It’d be wise not to use this with teachers or people of authority, but rather strangers and friends. It’s usually used when an innocent mistake is made but you feel really terrible about it.
9. ご面倒をお掛けして、すみません (ごめんどうを おかけして、すみません) — I’m sorry for all the trouble
Remember how we mentioned that you should apologize in an office setting when someone does something helpful for you? This is the phrase to use.
This isn’t you throwing yourself at their feet and begging for forgiveness. Rather, it’s a formality, a way to thank someone in a Japanese way.
10. どうもすみません！— I am so very sorry!
The mix of どうも — thanks and すみません makes this phrase seem a little strange. How can you thank and apologize to a person all at once? This phrase is used in situations where somebody helps you out with a small task.
A friend pours your tea at lunch. A coworker brings you a file you needed. It’s definitely more of a way of saying “thanks” than apologizing.
Apologies for When You Really Mean It
11. 申し訳ありません (もうしわけ ありません) — I feel awful
This is a very formal phrase used to apologize to a superior at work, a police officer or somebody else that has authority.
It can also be used as a formal way to show extreme gratitude for something. This phrase is similar to これは失礼しました but conveys much more intensity and is only used when apologizing to authority figures.
12. 許して (ゆるして) / 許してください (ゆるしてください) — Forgive me / Please forgive me
Use this phrase when someone’s upset with you, whether it’s a friend, a stranger or a person of authority.
It’s a good expression to use if you want to avoid “losing face,” as yelling at someone and making a scene in Japan is considered a major social faux pas. If you’re calm and asking for forgiveness, you look a lot better.
13. 勘弁して (かんべん して) / 勘弁してください (かんべんして ください) — Show me mercy / Please show me mercy
This may seem similar to 許して but it’s actually a lot more intense.
If you royally screw up, such as by cheating on your spouse or being responsible for something catastrophic, you’d say 勘弁して / 勘弁してください and probably also dramatically hit your knees.
Someone who’s completely wracked with guilt would use this phrase.
14. お詫びします (おわび します) — I apologize
This is probably the most intensely formal way of apologizing in Japan.
It was famously used by former Prime Minister Murayama in his apology to the world for Japan’s involvement in World War II. That’s the level of screw-up you need to use this one.
15. 合わせる顔がない (あわせる かおが ない) — I cannot face you
This can also be read as “I am too embarrassed to face you.”
The expression can be used interchangeably with 弁解の余地がない but it’s mostly used when apologizing via text or email, hence the “too embarrassed to face you” meaning.
16. 弁解の余地がない (べんかいの よちが ない) — There is no excuse
This would be used when you mess up and there really isn’t any excuse for what you did. If you hurt your spouse’s feelings or got caught doing something really shady, use this term.
17. すごく ごめんね — I am truly very sorry
If you ever do something to really hurt a close friend’s feelings or dishonor them in some way, this somewhat informal but still seriously genuine phrase would be appropriate.
You’ll also hear this phrase used between children after fighting.
Who knew there were so many ways to say “sorry” in Japanese?
While it’s somewhat unnecessary to memorize each and every one of these phrases as a beginner, it would help to write down a handful of them to keep on hand when preparing yourself for a move or visit abroad.
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist who writes about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.
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