If you’re considering visiting Japan or want to learn Japanese, sumimasen is probably among the first words you’ll hear or learn.

This word is widespread because of its multiple uses. You can use it to express gratitude or apologize. The same word can be used to request something, spark up a conversation, or say goodbye.

If this sounds confusing, don’t worry, as it can be at first. We’ll walk you through the several meanings of the Japanese word sumimasen, often pronounced as “sumasen” or “suimasen.”

Let’s dive in!

7 Ways The Term Sumimasen Is Used

We know what you’re thinking: how can one word has so many different meanings?

To most students and visitors in Japan, the word sumimasen means “I’m sorry” or “excuse me.” However, there are even more meanings depending on the context the term is used in.

The uses are classed into two main categories: supportive and remedial expressions. Supportive expressions are used as ritual exchanges to maintain cordial relationships. Remedial expressions are used to show genuine regret for an offense.

Let’s dig in a little deeper. Here are seven ways you may find yourself using the word sumimasen.

1. To Deliver A Sincere Apology 

The original use of the word sumimasen was to apologize for a mistake.

Japanese expressions like gomennasai are very similar to sumimasen. What’s the difference between the two? The word gomennasai comes from the word “gomen,” which means to beg someone for forgiveness. It expresses regret, with the goal being for the other person to forgive them.

The latter comes from the word “sumanai,” which admits guilt or a mistake. In this case, the person doesn’t want anything in return. They’re simply sincerely expressing their apology.

For example, let’s say you’re working on a group school project and are responsible for turning in the project. When the deadline rolls around, you forget to turn in the assignment. Now it’s late.

Your team asks you why you didn’t turn it in on time. Your response could be that you forgot and you are deeply sorry. If you respond using the word sumimasen, they’ll know you’re really sorry and made an honest mistake. Using the word gomennasai in this instance would be considered extreme since you’d be begging your classmates for forgiveness.

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2. To Apologize And Give Thanks

You may wonder how you can apologize and give thanks in one word. While sumimasen originally meant a sincere apology, you can also use it to bring a sense of mixed thankfulness and regret.

Maybe you have faced a situation where you regret doing something while at the same time you feel grateful.

Take the following as an example:

Let’s say you’ve waited 30 minutes in a long line to purchase dinner and a drink. When it’s your turn to pay, the cashier lets you know your bill is 310 yen. You hand them 400 yen, and they ask if you have 10 yen to make it easier to get your change. You let them know you do and rummage through your bag, looking for the 10 yen.

The cashier says sumimasen a few times. Can you guess why?

First, the cashier regrets making you search your entire bag looking for 10 yen. Secondly, they are grateful that you have agreed to go through all that trouble to help him with the change issue.

Using sumimasen in a case like the one described above is a more polite way of saying thank you. This is because it shows the other person that they’re aware of the trouble they’re putting them through, and they apologize. However, they’re also letting them know they appreciate and thank them.

3. To Request Something

This term can also be used to request something. It’s equivalent to “excuse me” in English.

For example, “Excuse me, can you please pass the salt?”. You’d use “sumimasen” in place of “excuse me.”

This is a typical scenario in Japan where you’d use the word sumimasen to request an item. It’s often used when asking for a favor. It makes the request less offensive and demanding.

We all know that our chances of getting what we want are much higher if we ask nicely! Therefore, next time you’re in Japan and need something from someone, start by saying, “sumimasen.” Other equivalent expressions in English are “could you please” or “do you mind.”

4. To Get Someone’s Attention

Sumimasen is one of many Japanese words that can be used to grab someone’s attention or start a conversation.

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Japanese people often use the word konnichiwa to greet each other. Sumimasen is typically used when there’s no familiarity between the people involved. For example, if you bump into someone at the park and want to talk with them, you could say sumimasen. It’s a polite way of getting someone’s attention that you don’t know.

We know… there’s so much to remember when it comes to this word. Sit tight, though, as we go through the final three meanings of the word sumimasen.

5. To Say Goodbye To Someone

When you’ve had a good time with a friend or a group, you can use sumimasen to close the conversation and go about your day. When you use sumimasen to open or close a conversation, it will have nothing to do with how regretful or thankful you are; these feelings become irrelevant.

In this case, sumimasen becomes an expression that lets your friends know you’re going on about your day.

Other Japanese words are used to close and open conversations, including sayonara or konnichiwa. However, some people prefer to use sumimasen because it has that underlying meaning of gratitude. It’s almost like you’re saying goodbye and thanking the other party for the conversation.

6. As An Affirmative Response

Since sumimasen is more of a supportive than remedial expression, its meaning is rather vague. It isn’t easy to translate it directly into another language, meaning you must familiarize yourself with Japanese culture to appreciate the different uses of this word fully.

Another benefit of sumimasen is to express positive affirmation or to respond positively to someone.

For example, imagine being in a bank with other customers waiting for service. Suddenly, the teller calls the person next to you, and the person responds by saying, “sumimasen.” This is a little confusing since the man has not done anything wrong worth apologizing for as a customer.

In this case, sumimasen is used to say “yes” or “ok.” in this scenario; the man uses the word to respond to the teller face-to-face while also appreciating that the teller has gone through the trouble of calling him to be served. Using sumimasen in this context is a little confusing, especially for people unfamiliar with how Japanese respond in different situations.

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Once you familiarize yourself with Japanese culture, it will be easier to understand how sumimasen is used in the context. Remember, practice makes perfect!

7. As A Ritual Greeting

The ritual greeting is perhaps the most exciting use of sumimasen. Understanding that a word can be used to apologize profoundly and as a ritual greeting can make things even more confusing.

For example, let’s say that a man goes to a local store to buy an item that requires filing a card (for registration). After filling out the card, the storekeeper checks it and returns it to the man saying, “sumimasen” The man replies by saying, “sumimasen.”

Note that the sumimasen said by the storekeeper is a positive response (it indicates that the man has filled the form correctly). On the other hand, the sumimasen said by the man is just a polite way of receiving the card back. The meaning of sumimasen in this context is a little clouded, but somehow, it is used to fill the gap where there would be silence.

Think about it this way, was there any need for the storekeeper to say anything while returning the card? He could check the card, confirm it’s correct and then return it. Of course, the salesperson wouldn’t say this if there had been errors on the card that needed correction. However, you may say “sumimasen” to apologize for the mistakes. To avoid any awkward silences, sumimasen is used.

The Many Meanings of Sumimasen: Final Thoughts

Sumimasen – it’s a popular Japanese word used in several different contexts. If you’re learning the Japanese language or plan to visit Japan soon, we hope this post has helped you better understand this term and its many meanings.

As a recap, sumimasen can be used as any of the following:

  • To deliver a sincere apology
  • To apologize and give thanks
  • To request something
  • To get someone’s attention
  • To say goodbye to someone
  • As an affirmative response
  • As a ritual greeting

Our final piece of advice is to practice using this word, preferably with native Japanese speakers. They’ll be able to correct you if you misuse it or offer suggestions of when you should/shouldn’t use it. Best of luck!