Saying sorry in English is simple and straightforward.
Sure, you can get fancy and describe how sorry you are with big words and give your reasons. However, in the end, it all comes down to a simple “sorry,” or “excuse me,” or “I apologize.”
Well, that’s not really the case in Japanese.
Japan has a rich culture that’s based on being polite and considerate, and as languages act as mirrors that reflect the culture itself, the Japanese language has the kind of depth and subtlety that most languages lack.
This means that a simple act of saying “sorry” can be done in many ways, some of which don’t even involve actual words.
In this post, I’ll tell you all about the many casual and formal ways you can say “sorry” in Japanese. I’ll also talk about scenarios that may call for an apology so that you can fit right in in Japan.
Let’s start with a little bit of cultural background.
Saying “I’m Sorry” in Japanese: The Cultural Significance
It might sound like an exaggeration, but the truth is that there are over twenty different ways to say sorry in the Japanese language, and there’s a cultural reason for this.
As you may know, Japanese culture is heavily based on co-existing with others in society and being an active part as an individual that takes responsibility for their actions.
You can see this in Japanese people’s daily routines, how they express gratitude, and how they greet each other. You can even tell by looking at the culture of Omiyage, where travelers are required to bring small gifts from their travels to those left behind.
Essentially, being humble and considerate and taking responsibility are major themes that you’ll frequently come across everywhere when living in Japan. This is because your reputation is deemed extremely important in Japanese culture.
Japanese people care deeply about how they are viewed by the public, and they value being viewed as cooperative and responsible individuals. This is caused by another common theme in Japanese culture, which is the concept of harmony known as Wa (和).
When it comes to a hierarchy of values, a harmonious and balanced society is held above anything else in Japan, and this is why any action that inconveniences others and disrupts harmony requires an apology.
Another component of this culture of apologizing is expressing your words with sincerity and respect. This is why bowing often accompanies most forms of apologies. Basically, a deep bow ensures that you mean what you say and helps amplify your message.
In some instances, Japanese people even say sorry instead of thanking someone, which also stems from inconveniencing others. Now, let’s talk about the many ways you can apologize in Japanese, express gratitude or regret, what you can exactly say, and how you can say it.
Informal Ways to Say Sorry in Japanese
As you can guess by now, formalities are very important in Japanese culture. The language itself has many ways to say certain things depending on the setting, and this is why there are various formal and informal ways you can sincerely say sorry to someone.
While the following phrases are commonly used in everyday language, you should be extra careful when talking to someone “above you,” like your boss or professor, as using these phrases may end up feeling slightly disrespectful in formal instances, even if your intentions are pure. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Now, let’s start simple and talk about a few forms of “I’m sorry” in Japanese that you can use in everyday situations.
Gomen Nasai or Gomen (ごめんなさい, ごめん) - I’m Sorry
This is perhaps one of the most common ways you can say “sorry” in Japanese.
You can use “gomen nasai” or “gomen” in most instances, as it’s a polite way to say sorry, but it’s a casual and barebones expression. Nonetheless, it’s the perfect phrase to use in everyday situations when you need to say sorry for minor things.
If you want to sound more genuine, you can also throw in a hontou ni (本当に) and say hontou ni gomen nasai (本当にごめんなさい), which strengthens the message and can mean “I’m truly sorry” or “I’m genuinely sorry.”
Sumimasen (すみません) - Excuse Me
Along with gomen nasai, sumimasen (すみません) is also a popular way of saying sorry in Japan, and the two are usually used interchangeably. However, this phrase implies an even more casual tone.
While saying gomen nasai may be more fitting in instances where you want to apologize for something you did, sumimasen can also be used in other ways. For instance, you can use the phrase for when you walk up to a bar and need to get the bartender’s attention.
Waruina (悪いな) - My Bad
Another casual way to say sorry, Waruina (悪いな) means “my bad.” However, this one specifically needs to be used when talking to close friends and people who are the closest to you.
Instead of saying waruina, you can also say warui warui (悪い悪い), which means the same thing.
Keep in mind that even if you’re talking to close friends, there may be instances where a simple warui can be disrespectful or insensitive, as it’s a casual apology used for minor things. So, I don’t recommend using it in serious situations.
Hontōni Mōshiwakenai (本当に申し訳ない) - I’m So Sorry
This one is also a casual way to say sorry and you can use it when talking to your closest friends, partners, and peers. Hontōni mōshiwakenai (本当に申し訳ない) essentially means “I’m sorry,” or “I’m so sorry.”
As opposed to warui, this one can also be used in more serious situations where emotions are involved. However, saying it in simple situations, such as when you accidentally bump into someone on the bus, may be a bit excessive and come across as awkward.
Shitsurei Shimasu (失礼します) - Please Excuse Me
You may hear this phrase in a few different situations, as the word “shitsurei” means “rude” in Japanese and is associated with apologizing for rudeness. Shitsurei shimasu (失礼します) in this context, however, means “please excuse me” or “pardon me.”
You can use this phrase for minor mistakes or occurrences where you’re inconveniencing someone, however, the phrase has a lighter meaning. This means that it won’t fly in serious situations.
Watashi No Machigai desu (私の間違いです) - My Mistake
This phrase is similar to waruina and also has a casual tone. This means that you can use it with friends and family but never in serious or formal settings.
You can use watashi no machigai desu (私の間違いです) for situations where you make a minor error. The tone of the phrase usually means that you’re aware of your mistake, as it implies that the user of the phrase is acknowledging their error.
O Yurushi Kudasai (お許しください) - Please Forgive Me
O Yurushi Kudasai (お許しください) is a phrase you can use both in formal and informal settings. It literally translates to “please forgive me.”
Keep in mind, however, that even if it’s okay to use it in informal settings, the phrase still implies a heavier tone and should be used for more serious apologies when used with friends and family.
For added sincerity, you can also use say of the phrases I mentioned above together with o yurushi kudasai, which will mean “I’m very sorry, please forgive me.”
If you’re speaking to a close friend, make sure to modify the phrase and say yurushite kudasai (許してください), which should sound more genuine.
How Do You Say Sorry in Japanese Formally?
Perhaps some of the most important instances where you’ll need to say sorry in Japan will be formal situations. As I explained, putting on a presentable face and preserving one’s reputation are deemed very important in Japanese culture.
Your friends and family might be aware of your intentions and personality, but your colleagues or people you meet in formal settings may not know you at all. This is why learning to say sorry in formal settings is one of the most crucial pieces of knowledge you need in Japan if you want to fit in and become a part of society.
Owabi Moushi Agemasu (お詫び申し上げます) - I Apologize
This is one of the most formal ways you can say sorry, as Owabi Moushi Agemasu (お詫び申し上げます) means “I apologize.” The phrase implies a great deal of respect as well as regret and was even used by Japanese political figures in the past when apologizing to the public.
As this is a highly formal phrase, it’s not possible to modify it to use in casual settings as the word owabi is strictly a formal word and doesn’t have an informal version.
Moushiwake Gozaimasen (申し訳ございません) - I’m Terribly Sorry
If you need to apologize for something you did wrong in a formal setting such as work or school, you can use moushiwake gozaimasen (申し訳ございません), which translates to “I’m terribly sorry.”
If you want to apologize for causing inconvenience instead of a mistake, you can modify the phrase and say gomeiwaku okakeshite moushiwake gozaimasen (ご迷惑おかけして申し訳ございません / ごめいわくおかけしてもうしわけございません), which means something along the lines of “I’m sorry for the inconvenience I caused.”
The phrase is mostly used when speaking to authority figures, officers, and professors, so make sure not to use this phrase when speaking to peers, even if it’s in formal settings.
Owabi Moushi Agemasu (お詫び申し上げます) - I Offer My Deepest Apologies
You can use owabi moushi agemasu (お詫び申し上げます) for formal situations, and it’s the type of language that businesses use to apologize to their customers for mishaps and accidents.
The phrase means, “I offer my deepest/sincerest apologies.” As you’d expect, because it may sound too rigid or cold in conversation, owabi moushi agemasu is mostly used in written language.
Hansei/Koukai Shite Orimasu (反省/後悔しております) - I Regret What I Have Done
This phrase is a formal way to apologize for one’s actions. You can hear public figures use this phrase to apologize for doing something that they’re not proud of.
Hansei/koukai shite orimasu (反省/後悔しております) literally means “I regret what I have done” and, despite its formal nature, doesn’t sound too rigid or cold. This is why it’s best used for more heartfelt apologies.
You can use both forms of the phrase hansei shite orimasu or koukai shite orimasu interchangeably. Although the phrase is mostly used in formal settings, you can make it sound less formal by saying “koukai shite imasu” instead.
Benkai No Yochi Ga Nai (べんかいの よちが ない) - There’s No Excuse
Benkai no yochi ga nai (べんかいの よちが ない) translates to “I have no excuses,” or “there’s no excuse,” and is usually used as a formal but sincere way to apologize. You can also say it to close friends and loved ones when you make a huge mistake that hurts them.
As simply saying that you’re sorry may not be enough for certain situations in Japanese culture, sometimes, when you make a big mistake at work and need to apologize, you can simply say this phrase to express that you’re sorry beyond words.
Gomeiwaku O Okake Shite Sumimasen (ご迷惑をおかけしてすみません) - Sorry to Bother You
If you’re ever lost and need to ask directions or need to interact with someone you don’t know in a public setting, it’s polite to say Gomeiwaku o okake shite sumimasen (ご迷惑をおかけしてすみません), which means “excuse me for bothering you” or “sorry to bother you.”
Although it’s used for apologizing, the phrase also implies that you’re thankful. You can also use this phrase in work settings when you don't understand your manager’s directions and need clarification or need help with a task that’s given to you.
If you want to be extra formal, you can change the sumimasen at the end to say “moushiwake arimasen” instead, which is the humble form of the phrase.
Shitsureishimashita (失礼しました) - That’s Very Rude of Me
This phrase doesn’t exactly mean “I’m sorry.” However, as the Japanese culture doesn’t favor directness most of the time, Shitsureishimashita (失礼しました) is often used as a way to express regret and to say, “That was rude of me.”
You can use this phrase in formal settings when you make a minor error that may inconvenience others, albeit momentarily. You can also use it when you accidentally bump into someone in public.
How to Say Sorry in Japanese: Apologizing for Inconveniencing Others
In Japanese culture, reading the room is an important concept that’s taught to people at a young age. This is because the concept is strongly tied to respect and harmony — the two values that carry great importance to Japanese people.
This is why inconveniencing others is something that you should always be aware of in Japan. It’s very common to say sorry when you’re asking for someone to do something for you, and it’s meant to serve more as a thank you to someone for being understanding than an actual apology. Moreover, it’s deemed considerate.
So, let’s now take a look at a few ways you can say sorry in Japan when you inconvenience others.
Go Meiwaku o Okake Shite Moushi Wake Gozaimasen (ご迷惑をおかけして申し訳ございません) - I’m Sorry for Causing You Inconvenience
Go meiwaku o okake shite moushi wake gozaimasen (ご迷惑をおかけして申し訳ございません) means “I’m sorry for causing you inconvenience.”
Although it may sound like too long of a sentence to be practical, it’s actually commonly used. You can hear this from companies when they’re unable to provide a service they’re supposed to. You can also use it in the workplace to say, “I have no excuses for causing you this inconvenience.”
Gomeiwaku o Kakete Sumimasen (ご迷惑をかけてすみません) - I’m Sorry to Have Caused You Trouble
This phrase is similar to the first one and serves the same purpose of apologizing for causing someone inconvenience, but it can add some variety to your vocabulary. Essentially, gomeiwaku o kakete sumimasen (ご迷惑をかけてすみません) means “I’m sorry to have caused you trouble” or “Sorry for bothering you.”
The root word “meiwaku” can be modified in different ways to say sorry, as the word specifically means “bothersome” or “annoyance.” However, because of this, apologies that have the word are usually only used for minor offenses rather than serious ones.
O Jama Shimasu (お邪魔します) - Pardon the Intrusion
O jama shimasu (お邪魔します) is similar in meaning to shitsurei shimasu, and it translates to “pardon the intrusion” or “sorry for the intrusion.” Despite the fact that it implies an apology, it’s more commonly used for situations where you’re entering someone’s house or office.
You should use this phrase even if you’re invited to a friend’s place, as it’s more about being polite than actually intruding. O jama shimasu can be used in both formal and informal settings, but as the tone implies politeness, it’s more often said to people you aren’t too close with.
How Do You Say Sorry When You Make A Mistake
No matter what country you’re in, perhaps one of the primary reasons you should say sorry is when you make a mistake. While some of the phrases I covered so far can be used for apologizing for mistakes as well, they might not cut it.
So, let’s now take a look at a couple more phrases you can use in writing or in conversation when you make a mistake.
Kanben Shite Kudasai (勘弁してください) - Have Mercy
It’s true that you can get away with a waruina or just a warui warui in most cases when you make a small error among friends, but you’ll need something much more than that when you make an actual mistake that has stronger implications.
While it may sound odd in English, kanben shite kudasai (勘弁してください), or “have mercy,” is a commonly used phrase in Japanese. It’s actually one of the most effective apologies, as it implies both the intensity of your regret and that you’re taking full responsibility for your actions.
Although it’s a good start, simply acknowledging your mistake isn’t enough in most dire cases, so you can add a “moushiwake gozaimasen” to say “I’m sorry, please have mercy on me,” which should get the job done.
Mou Shimasen (もうしません) - I Won’t Do It Again
This is another special way to say sorry when you make a mistake, but it’s strictly used in informal settings. Mou shimasen (もうしません) means “I won’t do it again” and is usually used by children or among close family.
The phrase can also be used by couples in a relationship when one person offends or annoys the other. Similar to kanben shite kudasai, you can also add an informal phrase that means “I’m sorry” to amplify the meaning and make it more sincere.
Saying Sorry as a Way to Thank Someone
As I mentioned, in Japanese culture, it’s polite to apologize for asking for something from someone. As you should always be wary of causing inconvenience to others by asking for something, when you do have to do it, you need to thank the person by apologizing.
For instance, some of the phrases I mentioned earlier, such as gomen nasai, or sumimasen can be used as both an apology and thank you.
In fact, you’ll hear some Japanese people say “sumimasen” instead of “arigatou gozaimasu,” which means “thank you” instead of thanking someone in everyday life.
Alternatively, you can also use “warui” when you want to thank someone for something minor. For instance, if you ask someone to bring you something, you can reply by saying “warui” in return. You can also say moushiwake nai (申し訳ない) which means I’m sorry and is used informally for minor things.
Lastly, another phrase you can use to thank someone by saying sorry is osore irimasu (おそれいります) which literally translates to “excuse me.” However, it’s recommended to use this phrase if you’re working a job where you have to speak to customers, as it implies more of an accommodating tone rather than an actual apology or thank you.
Alternative Ways to Say Sorry in Japanese: Specific Cases
While some situations might not call for an apology because you did something, you may still be required to say sorry out of politeness. Finally, let’s look at a few of these specific cases where saying sorry is crucial.
Saying Sorry to Decline an Offer
Another reason you may need to say sorry is when you’re offered something or invited somewhere but have to decline. After all, as it’s incredibly polite for someone to offer you something, simply saying no to decline can seem rude and inconsiderate.
When you’re invited somewhere and can’t — or don’t want to — go, you can say ikenakute gomen ne (行けなくて ごめんね), which simply means “sorry, I can’t go.” Of course, it would be ideal to state your reasons as well, but that’s up to you, and the person who invites you most likely won’t ask why out of politeness unless they’re a close friend.
Another situation where you may need to apologize for declining an offer is when you’re offered food. Japan has a deep culture when it comes to eating and serving food, and you may be offered food on many occasions when you’re not hungry.
When this is the case, you can simply say sumimasen, (insert food name) ga nigate de (すみません、○○が苦手で), which means “I’m sorry, I don’t like (insert food name).” Alternatively, saying ima wa onaka ippai (今はお腹いっぱいで) in addition to sumimasen is also acceptable, meaning “I’m very full right now.”
Saying Sorry for Your Loss in Japanese
This one is in a different vein than the others, as it’s not quite an apology. However, you’ll still need to say something along the lines of “I’m sorry for your loss” when someone loses a loved one in Japan, just like anywhere else.
To express condolences for someone’s loss, you can simply say ご愁傷様です (go-shūshō-sama desu), which literally translates to “I’m sorry for your loss.”
If you want to sound more sincere, you can also say このたびは誠にご愁傷さまでございます (Kono tabi wa makoto ni go-shūshō-sama de gozaimasu), which means “I’m deeply sorry for your loss.” and even add a 心からお悔やみ申し上げます (kokoro kara o-kuyami mōshiagemasu) at the end, which means “please accept my sincerest condolences.”
How to Say Sorry in Japanese: The Importance of Bowing and Gestures
In this post, I tried to feature all the ways you might be required to say sorry in Japanese, however, words aren’t the only thing that you’ll need to use if you want to look sincere. So, before I go, I’d like to talk a bit about the power of bowing and other gestures to complete an apology.
As you may know, gestures like bowing are very important in Japanese culture, and they’re especially important if you want to apologize in the most genuine way.
However, simply bowing isn’t going to be enough, and you need to learn how to avoid disrespecting others and embarrassing yourself.
First of all, if you’re apologizing for a minor, momentary mistake, you can do a light head nod instead of a full-on bow. The rule here is — the deeper the bow, the bigger the mistake. You may also see some people bringing their palms together instead of bowing for such minor occurrences.
However, if you’re saying sorry for something bigger than, say, bumping into someone, such as failing a task at work or not doing your homework, you’ll need to do a deeper bow. A normal deep bow can start from 15 degrees and go as low as 90 degrees. You’ll be the judge of how dire the situation is and bow accordingly.
Lastly, there’s also a deeper, more extreme bowing called “dogeza,” which is rarely ever used in daily life and is for extremely big offenses. This act requires full-body engagement but is hardly ever used outside of manga and anime nowadays as it’s a thing of the past.
Speaking of which, now that you’re done here, you can head on over to my post on the most popular anime phrases to use in Japan if you’re curious.