I'm being rude: Saying 'sorry' in Japanese (part 2)

I'm being rude: Saying 'sorry' in Japanese (part 2)

In Part 1 of this two part post on apologising in Japanese I took a look at some expressions that although could be used in some more formal contexts, were really best suited for every-day ‘low level’ apologies, and ‘apologies’ that were said as a matter of course and custom. However, when speaking Japanese it is particularly important to apologise in the right way in professional contexts.

I'm being rude Photo by kumozo

Let’s take a look at some expressions and vocabulary that you would normally hear in a more formal setting or with strangers.

“I’m being rude”

This expression, just like すみません is an absolute gem if you want to sound really Japanese by apologising without having done anything wrong: 失礼します (しつれいします - I’m being rude). A good translation is probably ‘excuse me’, as it’s used in instances when you’re seen to be causing a minor nuisance to somebody else.

When walking into a room where there is some activity going on, a weak under-the-breath 失礼します is pretty common, and walking out of a room after having completed some activity, whilst leaving others in the room (such as if you’re having to leave a meeting early) is always preceded with a sincere looking 失礼します and bow.

A similar expression is お邪魔します (おじゃまします - excuse me for disturbing you). The two are largely interchangeable but お邪魔します can sound a little softer which makes it more popular in informal situations. In general, it’s best to use 失礼します in business/formal situations (e.g., when entering someone else’s office), and お邪魔します in more private situations, such as when visiting a friend’s house.

Note that when used right before leaving, 失礼します remains in the present tense, whereas お邪魔します changes to お邪魔しました.

Don’t be afraid to say 失礼します when in public, such as taking a suitcase onto a train, or even passing through people. I have also heard it said when people are handing money to shopkeepers, but it seems that it may come across as a little peculiar when foreign people say it.

A little more formal

So far we have covered ways of apologising for little mistakes and minor inconveniences. However, it is useful to know how to actually apologise for something relatively serious should the need arise.

A good starting point is 申し訳ない (もうしわけない - It’s inexcusable)which of course is usually used in the polite Vます form.

<em>I’m very sorry.

To say what you are sorry for, use the Vて form of a verb, or で before a noun.

<em>I’m truly sorry for not taking prop</em>er care. 

This is also used by those in the service industry in this kind of fashion:

大変お待たせして申し訳ありませんでした。 たいへんおまちたせしてもうしわけありませんでした。 I’m very sorry for making you wait for so long.

Don’t forget that すみません is still used in formal situations, we just need to dress it up a little. For example, for excusing yourself from causing somebody trouble, you can use the word menndou (面倒 - trouble, difficulty) preceded by the honorific ご.

ご面倒を掛けてすみません。 ごめんどうをかけてすみません。 Sorry for causing you trouble.

Last but not least, you can make 失礼します and お邪魔します more formal by changing them to 失礼いたします and お邪魔いたします respectively.


Saying that you regret something is a slightly more nuanced way of apologising, so should be approached with care if you’re seeking to show remorse to somebody.

<em>I regret what I did. </em>

<em>I was sorry (I feel bad) that I didn’t go to the party.</em> 

A note about bowing

With almost all of these expressions, a bow is a must. Little apologies as a matter of formality are accompanied with a little bow of the head. Sincere apologies will express remorsefulness with a solemn deep and long-lasting bow.

A courier driver who delivered my suitcase after it was delayed at the airport went as far as kneeling on the floor and bending over for a long and awkward bow. I think he used all of the above phrases three or four times before leaving me with my bag. Apologising is a big deal in Japan.