The apology culture appears in most countries around the world. The representation can be different, but the common purpose is to say sorry to someone or the people around. In some cultures, the apology word is spoken out as a redundant language whereas other cultures express the apologies with sincere spirit & corrective actions. In some countries, apologies are represented in verbal language while other cultures represent it in non-verbal or a combination of both. It varies in different cultures. In this essay, I am going to point out pecularities of apology culture in Japan which is often called as “apology manner” (謝罪マナー).
Apologizing in Japan is more than just saying you’re sorry – it’s about politeness, and letting others know that you are reflecting on what went wrong, and not just uttering the required phrases. It has become part of Japanese culture and is employed across the board, by individuals, public figures, celebrities, corporations, even governments. Even though apologizing is often a personal practice, it is essentially an act that considers the whole and how each individual affects it. Here we explore the significance and meaning behind this humble habit. It is easy to find that everytime, everywhere, like a habit, Japanese people say “sorry = sumimasen” “gomen” together with a bow depending on each situation. The “sorry” word can be used when someone wants to ask for tips, or someone interrupts other people, or someone passes a street, or someone makes a mistake, or even when someone wants to say “thank you” and so on.
In this writing, we are going to pay a focus on three main questions
- Why do Japanese people express “sorry” so often?
- What are the meanings of saying “sorry = sumimasen”?
- How is the apology represented in Japanese culture?
2.2. Why Do Japanese People Apologize So Much?
In simple words, there are two considerable reason why Japanese people always say apology words like “sumimasen”:
The first reason is that it comes from their thinking from generation to generation. Japanese people use Sumimasen often because they are aware of their surroundings.
Japanese people are always careful to not bother others with their actions and remarks, so they go about their day aware of what their surroundings think of them. It is from such habits and the feeling of wanting to be seen as “a decent person” by others that people apologize with sumimasen before everything else, even if they don’t necessarily think they’re at fault for something, they “read the air” and try to make things as smooth as possible.
Even if it is obvious that oneself did do nothing wrong, it is Japanese conduct to first of all say “sumimasen” to the other person. On top of that, it is an advantage to make things go smoothly if the situation evolves into a discussion. Japanese people are always careful to not bother others with their actions and remarks, so they go about their day aware of what their surroundings think of them. It is from such habits and the feeling of wanting to be seen as “a decent person” by others that people apologize with sumimasen before everything else, even if they don’t necessarily think they’re at fault for something, they “read the air” and try to make things as smooth as possible.
The second reason should be that the meaning of “sumimasen is not only about saying “sorry” as a word by word translation into English. The apology in Japanese cultures can have different meanings that will be further explained in the second question.
2.3. What are the meanings of saying “sorry = sumimasen”?
As mentioned in the first question, Sumimasen is not only used as an apology. A lot of people know about the Japanese word sumimasen, meaning “sorry,” even though they don’t speak the language. It’s not an exaggeration to say that sumimasen is one of the most famous Japanese words, alongside konnichiwa (hello) and arigatō (thank you). However, how many people know that sumimasen has more meanings than that of an apology? Sumimasen is used by Japanese people every day, but its meaning differs greatly depending on the situation, sometimes meant as an apology, sometimes not. Among the Japanese, the word carries great meaning, is incredibly versatile, and entirely indispensable for building interpersonal relationships. Of course, there are various situations in which it is used as an apology, but also when asking for the way, when calling staff at a restaurant, when expressing gratitude, and so on – depending on the moment and the situation, the features of sumimasen change in all sorts of ways. Therefore, it’s wrong to say that Japanese people say sorry a lot and apologize for anything. Sumimasen is not only used as an apology. Next, I would be talking about some particular meanings of “sumimasen” in Japanese culture.
In Japanese culture, “sumimasen” can have 3 main meanings
- Sorry (when you cause a mistake)
- Excuse me (when you ask for a favor, or request somebody to help etc.)
- Thank you (“sumimasen” in this way is to express appreciation to others)
2.3.1. The Original Meaning of Sumimasen: Apology – Apologizing for Fault and Indiscretion
It should be noted that in Japanese, to say sorry, “sumimasen” is one of the most common ways, but there are also other similar words, but the strength might be a little bit different. Gomennasai, for example, is to make a stronger apology. “Mōshiwake arimasen” is another deeper apology often used by Japanese people in companies.
The Japanese word sumimasen is commonly thought to be an apology and thus directly linked to the English “sorry.” However, it’s important to note that sumimasen is used in the context of a “light” apology. When you strike someone unintentionally, when you’re late to a meeting, or when you picked up your phone late are example situations of such a light apology. It’s for when you feel like you’ve bothered or inconvenienced others a bit, and the Japanese people apologize for that with a sumimasen instinctively. Sumimasen is an easy word to use in pretty much any situation.
Of course, there is also gomennasai, but it carries a strong nuance of “please forgive me” and deeper reflection than sumimasen. However, it is also used more casually.
If you’d like to express a deeper apology than the light sumimasen, you should use phrases such as (gomeiwaku wo okake shite) mōshiwake gozaimasen (mōshiwake arimasen) or owabi mōshiagemasu. To sincerely apologize to someone face to face, the Japanese way is to say one of those phrases while deeply lowering your head.
2.3.2. The Original Meaning of Sumimasen: Request – When Requesting and Asking
Next to sumimasen’s meaning of “sorry,” a lot of people are aware that it can also mean “Excuse me.” When getting lost and asking for direction, for example, a commonly used phrase would be sumimasen, eki wa doko desu ka? (Excuse me, where is the station?). That way of using sumimasen is also fairly well-known. If you address someone with sumimasen, it has the same meaning as “Excuse me.”
Additionally, this meaning is useful to get off crowded trains or elevators by saying sumimasen, oriru no de tōshite kudasai (Excuse me, please let me pass), or to order at a restaurant (in Japan, you have to call the staff) with the phrase sumimasen, chūmon o shitai no desu ga (Excuse me, I’d like to order). In those situations, sumimasen takes on the strong meaning of “please let me do…”
2.3.3. The Original Meaning of Sumimasen: Appreciation – When Saying “Thank You”
In addition to “sorry” and “excuse me,” Japanese people also especially use sumimasen to convey a sense of gratitude directly connected to “Thank you” in daily life. Perhaps this is why many Non-Japanese people say that “the Japanese apologize too much.” Of course, it is often used as an apology or as a request, but Japanese people say sumimasen instead of arigatō or arigatō gozaimasu just as often. This is an interesting and complicated aspect of sumimasen.
Of course, it is not wrong to say arigatō gozaimasu when someone picks up an item that you lost, or someone offers you a seat on the train, but Japanese people say (okizukai itadaki) sumimasen and mean okizukai itadaki arigatō gozaimasu (Thank you for your concern/thoughtfulness). Sumimasen expresses gratitude for the kindness and thoughtfulness of others. In this way, sumimasen is often used to convey feelings of gratitude when being on the receiving end of a kindness. Instead of arigatō, a phrase such as ki o tsukawasete shimatte sumimasen is used to pay one’s respects to others in mutual understanding. The ancient custom of constantly being considerate towards others and the virtue of humility by putting others before oneself may be a kind of communication unique to Japanese culture.
2.4. How is the apology represented in Japanese culture?
2.4.1. Verbal language
Using verbal language or words to express apology is the most common way in most cultures. Japanese culture is not an exception. In Japanese cultures, there are some common words to express “apology”. Three ways are mentioned in this essay, but in fact there are more than that in everyday communication in Japan.
Sumimasen is one of the most common words in spoken Japanese. It’s often used as a mild apology. If you bump into someone on the subway use sumimasen. Sumimasen also used to say “excuse me” to ask for help, or to express appreciation to someone else.
Gomenasai is relatively familiar. That means it sounds formal but you can only use it with people you have a close relationship with. In other words, don’t try gomenasai on your boss. Use it when you boyfriend or girlfriend is mad at you.
Moushiwake gozaimasen deshita
Moushiwake gozaimasen deshita ((it was inexcusable) is a polite formal apology you should only use if you’ve done something very wrong. It might be used by the president of a company that has released a defective product.
2.4.2. Non-verbal language: Making a BOW
It is very familiar to foreigners who live in Japan that Japanese people often represent bows in some situations like asking for a favor, saying “thank you”, expressing “sorry”, or even when greeting someone.
In apology culture, the bow is often made together with the words of apology to show the levels of deeper apology and to show the humble attitude. Different angles of bow represent different levels.
According to original stories, bowing was a direct reflection of status—if you met a person of higher social standing, you would put yourself in the more “vulnerable” position of a bow.
In modern Japanese society, bowing serves a variety of functions that go beyond this original intent. Generally speaking, you will bow when doing the following:
- Saying hello or goodbye to someone
- Starting or ending a class, meeting, or ceremony
- Thanking someone
- Apologizing to someone
- Congratulating someone
- Asking someone for a favor or their goodwill
- Worshipping someone or something
More than just focusing on these occasions, though, it’s important to remember that bowing conveys different emotions, such as appreciation, respect, or remorsefulness. As you learn the physical aspects of a good bow, keep in mind what you’re trying to communicate through your posture, as this will inform how deeply you bow and for what length of time more naturally.
Types of ojigi in Japanese business
Eshaku (会釈) is generally performed with a slight inclination of about 15° of one’s upper torso. At the bowing position, one’s eyes should glance at the floor roughly three meters in front of one’s feet. It is a very casual form of greeting in business, usually performed between colleagues with the same status, or when more formal gestures are deemed unnecessary, like when one casually bumps into someone on the street.
The second type, keirei (敬礼), is the most commonly used variation of ojigi in Japanese business. It gives a more formal and respectful impression than eshaku, but less than saikeirei, the final type of ojigi. Conventionally, keirei is performed with an inclination of about 30° of the upper body. At the bowing position, one’s gaze should rest on the floor approximately 1 meter in front of his feet. Possible scenarios for its usage include greeting clients, entering a meeting and thanking superiors at work.
Finally, saikeirei (最敬礼), which literally means “the most respectful gesture”, is, as the name suggests, the ojigi that shows the uttermost respect towards the other party. It is mostly used when greeting very important personnel, apologizing or asking for big favors. Saikeirei is characterized by an even deeper inclination of one’s upper body than keirei, typically somewhere from 45° to 70°. Additionally, as saikeirei is only used in grave situations, one is expected to stay still at the bowing position for a relatively long time to show one’s respect and sincerity.