7 Ways to Say Sorry in Japanese and How to Use It Naturally

Japanese has many different words which have the same meaning but a completely different nuance. For example, Japanese uses a lot of keigo or honorific language. Knowing the right word to say for every situation can be difficult, especially if you need to apologize to someone.  

If you need to say sorry to someone in Japanese, here are 7 different ways to apologize (and how to use them correctly). If you’re interested in how to learn more Japanese fast, check out our learning Japanese roadmap page.

1.  すみません (Sumimasen):  I’m Sorry / I Apologize 

  • Frequency of Use: Very commonly used (daily conversation)
  • Politeness Level: Polite
  • Who: Generally used with people you are not close with (strangers, co-workers, etc.).  Both men and women can use this expression. 

This is probably the most standard way to say sorry in Japanese. It is also one of the first words that people studying Japanese learn. The reason for this is it is a very useful word. You can use it in virtually any situation in Japan where you want to apologize. You will use すみません (sumimasen) with people are you are not close to (people with higher/lower social status). You would most likely not use this with family members or close friends.  

Whether you make a small mistake at work or bump into a stranger on the street, すみません (sumimasen) is a good word to use.  

As mentioned above, すみません (sumimasen) pretty much means the same thing as ごめんなさい (gomennasai). Some people feel like すみません (sumimasen) is more formal and thus more polite for situations at work or with strangers.  

However, if you did something where you need to apologize formally (making a big mistake at work, etc.) すみません (sumimasen) might not be appropriate; you can try the more formal ways to say sorry on this list instead.  

Examples:

1. ご迷惑をお掛けしてすみませんでした。
(Gomeiwaku o okakeshite sumimasen deshita.)
I’m sorry to cause you trouble.

2. お待たせしてすみません。
(Omatase shite sumimasen.)
Sorry that I kept you waiting.

2.  すまん (Suman):  Yeah…Sorry

  • Frequency of Use: Not commonly used
  • Politeness Level: Not polite/rude
  • Who to Use It With: Family/friends. If used with people you don’t know well, it can sound rude.  Most women will not use this.  

This sounds like a short version すみません (sumimasen).  Just like with ごめん (gomen – item #4 on this list), it is a casual way to apologize. However, すまん (suman) feels much more casual. In fact, it can even sound rude. It almost feels like a backhanded apology. Kind of like someone saying, “Yeah, sorry.” in English.  

Now, this isn’t always the case. Some people use it as a casual way to apologize (it seems like older men are more common, and are very rarely used by women). However, since it does have an air of arrogance, it is best to avoid using this word. 

Examples:

1. すまん!ちょっとトイレ行ってくる。
(Suman! Chotto toire itte kuru.)
Sorry but I have to go to the bathroom.

2. 電話しようと思っててすっかり忘れてた。すまん。
(Denwa shiyō to omottete sukkari wasureteta.  Suman.)
I meant to call you but totally forgot.  I’m sorry.

3.  すまない (Sumanai):  I Apologize/I’m Sorry

  • Frequency of Use: Not commonly used
  • Politeness Level: Polite
  • Who it’s Used With: Generally used only with people you are not close to (friends, family, etc.). Usually only men will use this expression.  

This is a variation of すみません (sumimasen). This is a more serious way to apologize. The past tense form, すまなかった (sumanakatta), is also used to mean “I am so sorry.”  As language learners of Japanese, it is more likely that you will hear this in movies or in the media.

This way of apologizing is rarely used by women.  

Example:

こんな遠い所まで来てもらってすまなかったね。
(Konna tōi tokoro made kite moratte sumanakatta ne.)
Sorry to have you come all the way here.

4.  ごめんなさい (Gomennasai):  I’m Sorry

  • Frequency of Use: Very commonly used (daily conversation)
  • Politeness Level: Polite
  • Who: Can be used with both people you are close to (friends and family) and not close with (strangers, co-workers, etc.).  Both men and women use this expression.  

This is a very common way to apologize to someone in Japan. It is a relatively neutral word in terms of formality (not casual, but not formal). This is a word you can use when you need to apologize for “minor” things. For example, accidentally bumping into someone while walking or small mistakes at work.  

ごめんなさい (gomennasai) has virtually the same nuance as すみません (sumimasen – #1 on this list). However, some people feel that ごめんなさい (gomennasai) is more casual, and すみません (sumimasen) should be used when you want to apologize in a more serious type of way.  

Examples:

1. 忙しいところごめんなさい。でもどうしても聞きたいことがあるんだけど。
(Isogashii tokoro gomennasai.  Demo dōshite mo kikitai koto ga arun dakedo.)
I’m sorry to bother you while you are busy.  But there is something I’d really like to ask you.

2. お母さんのコーヒーカップ落として割っちゃったの。ごめんなさい。
(Okāsan no kōhī kappu otoshite wacchatta no.  Gomennasai.)
Mom, I dropped your coffee mug accidentally and broke it.  I’m sorry.

5. ごめん (Gomen):  Sorry ’Bout That

  • Frequency of Use: Very commonly used (daily conversation)
  • Politeness Level: Semi-polite;  less polite than ごめんなさい (gomennasai)
  • Who: Used with people you know well (friends, family, etc.)  Men and women use this expression.

This is the short form for ごめんなさい (gomennasai), making it a very casual way to apologize. Since it is casual and a “light-hearted” way to say sorry, it is only used between friends, family, or people you know well. 

You would NOT say this to someone of higher social status (your boss, teachers, etc.) unless you have a close relationship with them. Doing so can be very rude and even insulting. 

You can make ごめん (gomen) sound a little more serious by adding 本当に (hontō ni), meaning “very or really,” in front of it:

  • ごめん (gomen): Sorry ’bout that
  • 本当にごめん (hontō ni gomen): I’m really sorry

Putting a ね (ne) at the end of ごめん (gomen) is a little tricky. It can make the apology sound more casual, or it can make it sound more comforting and sincere, depending on how it is said. ね (ne) is usually said when you are seeking agreement from the person you are talking to.  

Saying ごめんね (gomen ne) in a light, casual way gives it the feeling of “Sorry, okay?”  

Said with a little more sincerity, it gives off the nuance of, “I’m so sorry about that.”

Examples:

1. 遅れてごめんね。
(Okurete gomen ne.)
Sorry I’m late.

2. 急用が入って明日行けなくなっちゃった。本当にごめん!
(Kyūyō ga haitte ashita ikenaku nacchatta.  Hontō ni gomen!)
Something urgent has come up and I can no longer go tomorrow.  I’m really sorry!

6. 申し訳ございません (Mōshiwake Gozaimasen):  I Humbly Apologize

  • Frequency of Use: Commonly used (in formal/business situations)
  • Politeness Level: Very polite
  • Who it’s Used With: People with a higher social status than you (boss, your customers, owner of a company, etc.).  Both men and women use this expression.  

If you made a big mistake in a business or formal situation, you would use 申し訳ございません (mōshiwake gozaimasen) to express that you are truly sorry. This is a very formal and polite expression, which is why it is used primarily in the workplace or with people who have a higher social status than you (your boss, teachers, etc.).  

It feels more apologetic than すみません (sumimasen) or ごめんなさい (gomennasai). You can make this expression a little less formal by replacing the ございません (gozaimasen) with ありません(arimasen): 申し訳ありません (mōshiwake arimasen)

You can make this less formal still by using ない (nai): 申し訳ない (mōshiwake nai). Even though this expression is the least formal of the 3, it is still more polite/formal than すみません (sumimasen) or ごめんなさい (gomennasai).  That being said, 申し訳ない (mōshiwake nai) should not be used with people who have a higher social status than you (boss, your customers, owner of a company, etc.).  Use 申し訳ございません (mōshiwake gozaimasen) when apologizing to people like this, or when you are in formal situations.  

Examples:

1. 今回はこちらの不手際でご不便をおかけして申し訳ございません。
(Konkai wa kochira no futegiwa de gofuben o okakeshite mōshiwake gozaimasen.)
I’m sorry that our mistake inconvenienced you this time.

2. 申し訳ございませんが、当店ではこちらの商品は取り扱っておりません。
(Mōshiwake gozaimasen ga tōten dewa kochira no shōhin wa toriatsukatte orimasen.)
I’m sorry but we don’t carry this item at our store.

7. ご愁傷様です (Goshūshōsama Desu):  I’m So Sorry For Your Loss

  • Frequency of Use: Commonly said to people who have lost a loved one
  • Politeness Level: Formal and polite
  • Who it’s Used With: Both men and women use this expression with people of any status.

When someone passes away, it’s normal to say “I’m sorry” or “I’m sorry for your loss” in English. That is why many Japanese learners will say すみません (sumimasen) when they talk to someone that lost a loved one. However, this is not only an incorrect expression, but it sounds really weird.  

To show you sympathy for someone who has just lost someone, you would say ご愁傷様です (Goshūshōsama desu). 愁傷 (shūshō) means “grief” or “sorrow.” The ご (go) at the beginning acts to make certain words more respectful. The 様 (sama) at the end also makes this a more formal and respectful phrase. This phrase literally translates to, “It is sorrowful.” The nuance is close to “I’m sorry to hear that” in English.  

Examples:

1. おじい様が亡くなったこと聞きました。ご愁傷様です。
(Ojīsama ga nakunatta koto kikimashita. Goshūshōsama desu.)
I heard you lost your grandfather.  I’m sorry for your loss.

When you see the family members of the deceased at the funeral service:

2. この度はご愁傷様です。
(Kono tabi wa goshūshōsama desu.)
I’m sorry for your loss.

I hope you won’t have to apologize often in Japanese, but these expressions are the ones to use if you do!

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