What does Sumimasen mean? Use it to thank or apologize

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  June 28, 2020
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If you are planning on going to Japan, but you don’t know the language, the word sumimasen can help a lot. That’s because it has a variety of meanings.

Sumimasen can mean:

However, no matter what context it is used in, the meaning is related.

When to use Sumimasen

If this is getting confusing, read on for a more concise explanation.

Sumimasen Meaning

Basically, sumimasen means ‘thank you’ but it also means, ‘I’m sorry for the trouble you have gone through’. In this way, it means I’m sorry and thank you at the same time.

When Should You Use the Word Sumimasen?

In Japanese culture, Sumimasen can be used in any of the following situations.

Synonyms for Sumimasen

There are other ways to say I’m sorry and thank you in Japanese. However, they don’t really have the exact same meaning.

How to say thank you in Japanese

One way to say I’m sorry is to use the word osoreirimasu. This is a very polite version of the phrase ‘thank you’ and it’s not something that is used every day.

It is usually used when talking to customers or bosses. You wouldn’t use it when speaking to friends or family members.

Furthermore, osoreirimasu is only used to say thank you, never I’m sorry or excuse me.

How to say I’m sorry in Japanese

Gomennaisi is another possible substitute. It is derived from the word gomen which means to beg forgiveness.

It differs from sumimasen because sumimasen does not ask people for forgiveness. It is simply an acknowledgment that the person saying it has done something wrong.

Honto ni gomen ne can also be used. It means ‘I am really sorry’. Honto ni means really and adding it in makes it seem as if your apology is more heartfelt.

Sogguku gomen ne is an expression to be used between family members and close friends. It means ‘I am truly sorry’.

Moushi wakenai is another way to apologize. This expression means ‘I feel terrible’.

It is usually used to apologize to someone you don’t know that well or someone who has a higher status than you do.

Moushi wake armasen deshita can be used in similar situations. It translates as ‘I am really sorry. I feel terrible.’

A deeper way to apologize is to use the word ‘owabi’.

This is one of the most formal ways to apologize and it was famously spoken to the Japanese people by their Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.

He used the word to express his deep regret over the damage and suffering his people experienced due to ‘colonial rule and aggression’.

Arigatou vs. Simimasen

Arigatou is another way for the Japanese to say thank you.

However, sumimasen means thank you on a deeper level because it also acknowledges that the action they are thanking the person for may have caused an inconvenience.

There are many ways to say thank you using the word Arigatou. Here are some examples.

Sumimasen vs. Shitsurei Shimasu

There are many ways to say thank you, but there are also several ways to say excuse me.

Sumimasen can be used to mean excuse me but shitsurie shimasu is a more polite way to say excuse me. It is reserved for use at formal occasions and between strangers.

Some will be even more formal by saying osakini shitsurie shimasu which means, excuse me for leaving early or before you.

However, it has since been shortened and most will use osakini or shitsurie shimasu but rarely will they use the two together.

When osakinin is used on its own, its translation is more along the lines of ‘excuse me, I have to go’.

Sumimasen vs. Suimasen

There is a bit of confusion about the origin of suimasen.

Some think it is a slang version of sumimasen while others think it was adapted when people said the word suimasen quickly.

Both are kind of similar ideas.

Really, the long and short of it is, both words mean thank you but sumimasen is a slightly more polite way of saying it.

If you are unsure of how suimasen will come across, it is best to stick with saying sumimasen.

Why Do the Japanese Apologize so Much?

After finding out about all these various ways to say ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Excuse me’ in Japanese, it becomes obvious that apologizing is a big part of the country’s culture.

While not many people know how this apologetic mentality came to be, it is somewhat well known that the Japanese have developed a culture of being considerate and acting with humility that goes back to ancient times.

This is quite unique and there are not many cultures in the world that share this type of thinking.

It should also be noted that Japanese people are very aware of their surroundings and what others think of them.

They are careful not to bother others with their actions and remarks and they are very conscious of wanting to seem like decent people.

Because they are so concerned about the impression they make, they will use words like sumimasen to smooth things over and avoid any possible confrontation or actions taken out of context.

In this way, the word can almost be used as a kind of self-defense. It can prevent an uncomfortable situation from occurring….even if the uncomfortable situation never would have occurred in the first place!

Can Saying Sumimasen Get You in Trouble?

While sumimasen is usually meant to smooth things over, it can sometimes get people in trouble.

For instance, say you are caught in a traffic accident. If you say you’re sorry, it can be seen as an admission of guilt.

However, people in Japan are so used to saying sumimasen, they may just say it anyway, even if they know the other person is at fault.

This is why people need to limit saying the word and reserve it for the right situations.

Sumimasen- English Translation

If you put the word sumimasen into Google Translate to translate it to English, it will come back with the words ‘excuse me’.

This is the most literal English translation of the word.

If you are wondering how the word is pronounced, it is broken down like this:

Soom me ma sin

The accent is put on the second syllable and the vowel sound is pronounced like a long e. There is no accent at all on the last syllable.

You can hear exactly how it’s pronounced by listening to this video:

How Do You Respond to Sumimasen?

When someone says ‘I’m sorry’ in English, there is no rote response.

For instance, when someone says thank you, we say ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘no problem’ but when someone says ‘I’m sorry’ there really is no set thing to say.

However, just leaving someone hanging after they apologize can be quite rude.

Japanese culture is similar. There is really no one set response that is called for when someone apologizes. However, it is always best to respond.

Here are some possibilities for suitable responses.

More Formal: If you are responding to someone quite a bit older than you, or if you are talking to a superior at work, you will want to take the more formal route.

This means you will want to say, I’m sorry’ as well. In these cases, you can respond with ‘sumimasen’, ‘gomen nasai’ or ‘shitsurei shimasu’.

You should also bow as you say these phrases.

If you are planning on leaving, you should be bowing while you are departing.

Why do the Japanese Bow?

Let’s take a somewhat tangential route and explore why the Japanese bow so often, especially when apologizing.

Bowing is a sign of respect in many Asian cultures. Bows that are deeper and last longer will be even more meaningful.

When a bow accompanies an apology, it means the apology is deeper and longer-lasting.

Is Sumimasen Rude?

Sumimasen is not rude in general but it can be rude if it is used in the wrong situation.

Sumimasen is a lighter way of apologizing. It can be used when you accidentally strike someone or when you are running a bit late.

However, if you try to use it when a more extreme apology is called for, it can be taken the wrong way.

If you are looking to make a more extreme apology, try going with gomennaisai which means ‘please forgive me’.

This phrase is more universal and it can be used in both formal and casual situations.

If you want to express a deep apology try phrases like gomeiwaku wo okake shite, moshiwake gozaimasen, moshiwake arimasen or owabi moshiagemasu.

These are best expressed when one lowers their head.

Exploring the Etymology of Sumimasen

Sumimasen originates from the word Sumanai. Although the word means ‘unfinished’, its root, sumu means ‘with an unburdened heart’.

Therefore, it is similar in meaning to ongaeshi ga sunde inai which means the act of repaying kindness is unfinished.

It can also be related to ‘jibun no kimochi ga osamaranai’ which means ‘I cannot accept this just like so’.

When you think of these more literal translations you can see how sumimasen can make an insufficient apology in some instances.

Why Sumimasen Might Be the Only Word You Need

If you travel to Japan, the language might be a major barrier. English and Japanese are quite different, and it can be difficult to master the words themselves much less the grammar.

Sumimasen comes in handy because it has a variety of meanings. More than that, it can help if you are lost.

For instance, say you are trying to find the Shinjuku Station. There are several things you can ask. For instance, you could say, ‘Sumimasen.

Shinjuku eki wa doko desu ka’. But to an English speaker, this phrase may be a bit complicated.

A simplified version is ‘Sumimasen. Shinjuku eki wa?’ Once you understand eki means ‘station’ it shouldn’t be too hard to translate.

But to make things even simpler, just ask, ‘Sumimasen. Shinjuku Station?’

Sure, the grammar isn’t great, but almost anyone you ask will understand you and you are likely to find out where you need to go.

Sumimasen is a word that everyone who goes to Japan should know. It has multiple meanings, it’s a big part of Japanese culture and it can even help you get around town a bit easier.

What other Japanese words do you think are important?

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.