Saying sorry is not an easy matter in Japanese. There are many different ways of saying sorry depending on the situation and social status of the person you are saying sorry to.
This article attempts to summarize four common ways of saying sorry, ranked in ascending order from casual to serious apology. They are gomennasai, sumimasen, shitsureeshimashita, and mooshiwakearimasen.
1. ごめん（ね） Gomen (ne)
Gomen is the abbreviation of the word ごめんなさい gomennasai. It is the most casual way of saying sorry to your younger siblings or close friends. You can use this in situations such as when you have forgotten to return your younger sister’s bag after borrowing it from her and she is angry at you.
For a more feminine or softer tone, you can add ne after gomen.
When the mistake made is slightly more serious than forgetting to return a bag such as when you have accidentally spilled coffee over your friend’s limited version comic set, you can add hontooni after gomen to show your apology, thus the expression can be “本当(ほんとう)にごめん（ね） Hontoo ni gomen (ne)” (I’m really sorry).
2. ごめんなさい Gomennasai
When you need to apologize to your parents or friends who are older than you, gomen may be too casual. Thus, you can use the more polite version gomennasai instead.
An example of using gomennasai is when you have forgotten to take out the rubbish and your mum is angry at you.
3. すみません Sumimasen
Sumimasen is the most common way of saying sorry in the context of a “light” apology.
Some examples include when you accidentally stepped on someone’s foot in the train, when you are late for a meeting, or when you picked up your phone late. It is for when you feel like you have bothered or inconvenienced others a bit.
4. 遅れてすみません Okurete sumimasen
I’m sorry for being late
You can use this expression if you are late for an event, meeting, or class.
In general, it is good practice to be punctual. However, it is not sufficient to be present on the dot according to Japanese standard. You have to be there at least 5-10 minutes before the appointed time. “Okurete” comes from the word “okuremasu” (late).
The reason for the apology can be added before the word sumimasen by changing the latter to the te form. In this case, we changed okuremasu to okurete.
5. 失礼(しつれい)しました Shitsureeshimashita
I’m sorry for the inconvenience
This expression is often used in business situations when you have annoyed or troubled someone. The polite version of this is when you really are in trouble is 大変失礼(たいへんしつれい)しました taihen shitsureeshimashita.
We sometimes hear this apology in the news when the newscaster accidentally mispronounces someone’s name or reads the news wrongly. He/She would then apologize with taihen shitsureeshimashita.
6. 申(もう)し訳(わけ)ありません Mooshiwakearimasen
I’m very sorry
Mooshiwakearimasen is the humble form of sumimasen. This expression is also often used in business situations.
By humbling oneself, you can increase the level of respect for the other person and indirectly show how apologetic you are with respect to the incident that you are apologizing for.
For example, you were in the vicinity of a famous Michelin star sushi restaurant and decided to try your luck there even though you did not make any reservations. It turned out that the restaurant had already sold out for the day. The restaurant owner may apologize to you with “申(もう)し訳(わけ)ありません。本日(ほんじつ)は売(う)り切(き)れでございます。Mooshiwakearimasen. Honjitsu wa urikirede gozaimasu.” (Sorry but we’re sold out for today).
The next two examples show situations where we use mooshiwakearimasen with a combination of the reason for the apology.
Gomeiwaku o okakeshite, mooshiwakearimasen
I’m very sorry for the inconvenience caused
In the Japanese culture, people try to avoid causing inconvenience to others. Japanese people are always careful to not bother others with their actions and remarks, so they go about their day aware of what their surroundings think of them.
If a situation arises in which they have inconvenienced others, this is the expression to use. You can use it at the end of an email to your colleague after asking him to send in his report to you at an earlier date than previously agreed.
Gorenraku ga osokunarimashite taihen mooshiwake gozaimasen
I’m terribly sorry for the late response
You can use this expression when you were on holiday and did not access your emails. When you came back to work, you noticed an email from your customer that was dated a few years ago.
This is one of the very useful set phrases to remember for Japanese communication, especially in writing business emails. As mentioned previously, the reason for the apology is written in front (gorenraku ga osokunarimashite).
Mooshiwake gozaimasen is the humble form of mooshiwake arimasen. Notice that when you are more apologetic and when talking to a customer or superior, your apology gets longer than compared to one used toward a friend or family member.
Saying sorry is not easy for any culture. This is more so for the Japanese culture as there are many ways of saying sorry, with subtle nuances for very specific situations. However, these four ways of apologizing should cover most bases when it comes to apologizing in Japanese.