Sumimasen: 5 Meanings in the Japanese Language | Guidable - Your Guide to a Sustainable, Wellbeing-centred Life in Japan
Sumimasen, people hugging

Sumimasen: 5 Meanings in the Japanese Language

By Guidable Writers Apr 28, 2021

This post is also available in: Indonesian

Sumimasen is a word often heard when moving around in Japan. Have you noticed that Japanese people use it in many different situations? Maybe you’ve wondered what these instances mean?

Sumimasen, What Does it Mean?

Normally sumimasen means “sorry,” but it has several meanings in Japanese. People use this word not only to apologize but also to express their gratitude or start a conversation.

It may not be evident why there are several meanings of one word, but Japanese people use this word quite often every day and distinguish it automatically depending on each situation.

Let’s see what the word “sumimasen” means and how Japanese people use it differently depending on the situation.

1. Using “Sumimasen” as an Apology

sumimasen, businessman bowing

When Japanese people apologize to someone, they normally say “sumimasen,” which means “I’m sorry”.

Generally, Japanese people say “Sumimasen” by reflex in the following situations:

・When bumping into someone while not paying attention
If you were to bump into someone on the street because of their carelessness, they quickly say “sumimasen” to the person who got hit, expressing their apology.

・When people are running late for their appointment (work, meeting, eating out with someone, etc.)
Before people say, “I’m sorry for being late,” people first say the word “sumimasen” and continue to explain why they were late.

Another word also has the same meaning as saying sorry, “gomennasai,” but people usually don’t use this word in the above situations.

Why do Japanese people use “sumimasen” and “gomennasai”  in different situations?

2. What’s the Difference Between “Sumimasen” and “Gomennasai”?

sumimasen versus gomen nasai

When Japanese people apologize, normally they say, “I’m sorry,” “excuse me,” or “pardon me” (depending on the situation).

Do you know the main differences between these 2 words?
Japanese people distinguish these words depending on the following meanings:

  • The word “gomennasai” originally comes from the word “gomen,” which means begging people for forgiveness. People feel sorry for what they’ve done and request other people to forgive them as well.
  • The word “sumimasen” originally comes from the word “sumanai,” which shows an admission of a mistake and expression of feelings without asking for anything in return. They don’t require anything in return, only want to express their apology.

So, when Japanese people bump into someone or running late for their appointments,
they say “sumimasen” rather than “gomennasai”.

Related article: learn Japanese through Japanese dramas!

3. To Get Attention

sumimasen, asking for a waiter

If you have been to a restaurant in Japan before, you might have noticed Japanese people saying “sumimasen” to waiters or waitresses. Maybe you are confused why Japanese people keep apologizing to the waiters or waitresses?

When Japanese people need to order some food or drinks and need to get the attention of waiters or waitresses, they normally call with “sumimasen” to let the staff know that they are ready to order. It’s a way to get attention in restaurants or other situations such as in the street or on the train.

4. Using “Sumimasen” For “Thank You”

It’s quite odd that Japanese people also use the word “sumimasen” to express their gratitude to someone instead of apologizing. It’s a little confusing that Japanese people use this word for both apologizing and appreciating.

Normally Japanese people say arigato gozaimasu,”  meaning “thank you”. However, people also say “sumimasen” when they want to express their appreciation or a feeling of regret, guilt, or another negative emotion.

Here are some examples of situations when Japanese people feel gratitude but also feel bad.

・When receiving a surprise get-well gift from someone while in the hospital.
・When someone returns a lost item to them.
・When given a ride home by someone.

These are just a few examples but, in any situation, when people feel bad but appreciate something,  they generally say “sumimasen” to include both meanings.

5. Differences Between Spoken and Written

sumimasen, bowing people

So, do Japanese people also use the same word “sumimasen” in the written language?

It’s a little complicated, but there are 3 different ways of saying “Suimasen” in the spoken language and written language.

For spoken language, Japanese people say “suimasen”
For written language: Japanese people say “sumimasen”

Additionally, when people want to express their apology through an e-mail, people must write more appropriately and politely as follows:

For written language for business, Japanese people use “moushiwake-arimasen.”

sumimasen, thank you

The Many Meanings of Sumimasen

Do you now see why Japanese people often use the word “sumimasen” every day?

or more casually “suimasen” is generally a verbal expression and is a very convenient word that people use for both apologizing and showing gratitude.

Many of you may think Japanese people tend to apologize all the time, but now you know they’re not; in certain situations, they’re expressing gratitude.

Now one mystery of Japanese expression is solved! What about the next one?

See you in the next article!


Read more about the Japanese language in this article:

Aizuchi: Japanese Conversational Interjections