Created for expats living in Japan

What you didn’t know about Japanese habits

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The following article is contributed by Tokyo Central Japanese Language School.

Hello, my name is Yuki, a Japanese language teacher. 

Japanese people always say "Sumimasen(Excuse me / I’m sorry)", don't they? When you are around Japanese people, you often hear the word "すみません(Sumimasen)".

When translated directly into English, it means "I'm sorry," but we Japanese use this word frequently and unconsciously in our daily lives. As a result, people around the world tend to think that "Japanese people are always apologizing.

When you hear a Japanese person say, "I'm sorry," you might think, "Why are you apologizing? " or " Apologizing immediately is a bad habit of Japanese culture, isn't it?”.

But wait a minute!!

Actually, the word "Sumimasen" has a surprisingly deep meaning.

Let's take a look at when Japanese people use the word "Sumimasen" along with some other situations.

Application of "Sumimasen(I'm sorry)" - Case No.1


When you are late for an appointment

When you lose an important document

When you step on the foot of the person next to you on a train.

Application of "Sumimasen(I'm sorry)" - Case No.2



Now, here's another usage of Sumimasen(Excuse me)".

When approaching a person

When you are lost and want to ask someone nearby for directions

When calling for the hall staff at a restaurant


Even in such a situation, Japanese people raise their hands and say, "Sumimasen" in a loud voice. In this case, "Sumimasen" does not mean "I’m sorry.

As you can imagine from the above scenes, this is a way of addressing another person.  To put it simply, you are saying to the other person, " Hey”.

Application of "Sumimasen(I'm sorry)" - Case No.3



Now, let's look at one last use.

When you receive a gift from a business partner or a neighbor

When a co-worker or senior colleague helps you with a task

When a person in front of you opens the door for you

When someone offer you a seat on a train


In such situations, what would you say? I'm sure you would say, "Thank you”.

But even in these circumstances, Japanese people tend to say "Sumimasen". In this case, "Sumimasen" is used to mean "thank you," or gratitude. Of course, "Arigatou (thank you)" is also a commonly used.

But if the person is a senior person, a business associate, or someone you have never met before, we often say, "Sumimasen, Arigatou gozaimasu". (Thank you very much).

From a foreigner's point of view, it would be confusing whether they are apologizing or being thankful.

Why do Japanese people say "Sumimasen"?

Why do Japanese people say "Sumimasen" even when expressing their gratitude? I think it comes from the politeness and care of the Japanese people.

“I am sorry that you took your precious time to help me, but I want to express my gratitude” It is a part of Japanese culture that was born from such a desire.

"It is an expression of care and concern for others that is uniquely Japanese..."

When you think about it that way, "Sumimasen" is a pretty good word, isn't it?


In this article, I introduced three ways to use "Sumimasen": as an apology, as an appeal, and as an appreciation. In addition to the above, there are many other situations where "Sumimasen" is used in a different way. When you think about it again, the word "excuse me" may actually be useful.

So, if you hear the word "Sumimasen" from now on, please try to think about what it means in this circumstance. I'm sure you can easily guess what it means, because it is just used according to the situation.

After understanding the meaning and usage of the word, I recommend that you try using it yourself. If you can use the word "Sumimasen" well, which is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, it will bring you closer to the Japanese people.

Oh, I have one last request.

Let's say you pick up something that a Japanese person visiting your country had dropped. Then the person might say, "I'm sorry" in English. In such case, please remember that the person is trying to express his or her gratitude and tell them to use "thank you" instead.