Japanese Manners! Why Japanese People Say Thank You and Sorry So Often | Guidable - Your Guide to a Sustainable, Wellbeing-centred Life in Japan

Japanese Manners! Why Japanese People Say Thank You and Sorry So Often

By Aika Kaise Nov 28, 2018

It is often said that Japanese people say thank you and sorry too much. Sometimes it can be seen as a bit much for people overseas. There are, however, some reasons why it is sad so often, and there are cultural differences between Japan and overseas. Knowing the reasons and differences may help you understand this custom.

In a continuation on our previous note on apologizing, this article explains more about the reasons for this custom.



1. The Reason Why People in Japan Say “Thank You” and “Sorry” very Often

You will often hear Japanese people say “thank you” and “ sorry” often if you come to Japan.
It is because Japanese people are very polite to other people. They even say “thank you” even when they are doing something to help another person.

For example, if they take their friend sightseeing, he or she says “It was fun, thank you for guiding me,” and they also say “I was pleased, too. Thank you for accompanying with me”.
This situation can be seen as strange by people from overseas, and some Japanese people also feel this is saying “thank you” too much.

“Sorry” is also sometimes overused.
For example, when walking in the street if they accidentally bump into someone, they say “sorry.” It may especially appear strange by Korean people who generally do not say “sorry” in this case. They feel it is not needed because they think no one is bad in this situation.
On the contrary, Japanese people feel bad if they do not apologize in this case.

Therefore, it is thought that Japanese people say “thank you” and “sorry” very often because they are very polite to the others.


2. “Sorry” is More Often Said than “Thank You” in Japan

First of all, the word “sorry” is used more often instead of “thank you.” It is thought one of the reasons is because it is easier to say. In Japanese, sorry is “sumimasen”, and thank you is “arigato.” It is much easier to say “sumimasen” because it rolls off the tongue.



3. Differences Between “Sorry” and “Sumimasen”

Another reason is the difference between “sumimasen” in Japanese and “sorry” in English.

The word, “sumimasen” has 3 meaning in Japanese: “excuse me”, “thank you”, and finally “sorry”. Whereas “sorry” is used only for apologizing. So this is why “sumimasen” is used more frequently.

Japanese people are, however, often do not notice that they use it for 3 meanings. Therefore, when speaking English, they automatically use “sorry” without thinking about the different uses.

Let’s see examples of the 3 situations.

Case 1. “Sumimasen” which means “thank you”.
When Japanese people receive a gift from someone, they say “sumimasen”.
As you may know, it means “thank you” in this case.

Case 2. “Sumimasen” which means “excuse me”.
When Japanese people go through among people in crowded train, they say “sumimasen”.
As you may notice, it means “excuse me” in this case.

Case 3. “Sumimasen” which means “sorry”.
When they break someone’s belongings, they say “sumimasen”.
As you may guess, it means “sorry” in this case.

Can you understand the meaning of the word “sumimasen” now?
For Japanese people, it is very natural to use the word “sumimasen” depending on each situation. There is no misunderstandings among Japanese people although they say the word with 3 meanings.
As you can see from it, they think of others very well, and they can know what they are thinking without explanation.


4. Misunderstandings from People Overseas

Because of these differences, it seems strange for tourists and non-Japanese if they experience Japanese people using “sumimasen” in every situation. It is especially confusing when Japanese people translate it as “sorry” in English.



What do you think about the different uses of “thank you” and “sorry” in Japanese? It may seem like Japanese people apologize a lot but this is not only because Japanese people are very polite but also because there is a difference of word meaning between “sorry” in English and “sumimasen” in Japanese. Why not try to pick out the different uses in your everyday life? Are there similar uses for both expressions in your home country?

Aika Kaise / Japan