Do Japanese People Say Sorry Too Much?

March 9, 2020 Juju Kurihara Culture, Custom, Lifestyle, Vocabulary Tags: , , , , , , 5 Comments

For him, coming from a Latin culture, apology is done when it’s considered as a bad thing. Saying “sorry” is the very last thing (and I barely hear that word from him). I understand that nothing is bad enough that he needs to say sorry. 


These two were completely opposite culturally. I’m not going to discuss other culture here but my own. Why Japanese people say sorry so much? Because it seems like people are annoyed by this. 


Let’s see what some studies say.

– It’s important for Japanese people to keep the harmony

– They consider that recognising their own mistake is dignified

– In Japanese society no one will accuse them anymore once one apologise

– It is considered that insisting you are right is egoistic

– Japanese people tend to put themselves in other’s shoes and agree with others

– It’s important not to lose other’s face


This says, Japanese people tend to end the conflict by apologising and prefer not to look for the cause of the problems or the truth. Also when someone lows its head and says sorry, no-one will accuse him anymore. This has created the “apologising society”. 



Other explanation of using too much sorry is, the word has three meanings rather than just “I’m sorry”. This illustration shows it clearer.[/caption]

1. Apology: A woman steps on a man’s foot. Here, sumimasen is a clear apology.

2. Gratitude: A woman offers an injured man an umbrella. Here sumimansen means "thank you".

3. Calling on: A person stops someone to help him carrying a bag. Here sumimasen is for getting an attention of someone for a help.

Often, especially in the case of 2 and 3, there will be additional phrase such as sumimasen arigatougozaimasu (Thank you) or sumimasen chotto iidesuka (sorry to bother you but could you…). 


Sumimasen can be replaced to gomennasai (ごめんなさい/my apology). I would explain the difference between sumimasen and gomennasai to my Spanish speaking students as “perdona” and “lo siento”. Gomennasai is more apologetic than sumimasen. Probably in English could be the difference between "excuse me" and "I am sorry”. 


Dogeza (土下座) is an extreme way to apology. This is a part of etiquette and has a long history. It is already mentioned in a Chinese historical text published in the 3rd century that Japanese commoners would do dogeza when they met noblemen along the road.[/caption]

Dogeza is considered as the last resort. Japanese people think no one would say no to dogeza and they would be forgiven. Only thing they don’t know is, it may not work outside of Japan. This photo in 2015 shows a Japanese politician doing dogeza at Seodaemun Prison History Hall. For him, this was the apology but the Korean government didn’t accept it, which it was very difficult to understand for the Japanese side. The former Japanese PM was expecting to hear “It’s fine. We start from the beginning."



Here is a funny video shows an extreme Japanese apologising: 



After living outside of Japan and dealing with the western culture, I’ve learnt not to apologise easily because I’ve found other vocabularies in different occasions. Now I tend to say "thank you” when someone hands me something I have dropped. Or I say, “I’d love to but I can’t because….” when I can’t meet someone because I have other commitments to do. In Japanese I would use “sumimasen” in both cases. I don’t consider myself becoming more arrogant not saying sorry. Simply the way people speak is a culture. Just a different approach to others. As soon as I step in Japanese land or meet my Japanese friends, my chip automatically changes and I start sumimasen. ‘When in Rome, do as Romans do’, right?


Yes, once in a while I get irritated with my partner because he would put every effort (at least this is how I see) not to apologise even when he is obviously making mistakes or annoying me. But this is a cultural crush and is a different theme that I may talk about it some time. 


I like to hear your opinion about this topic. Why does too much sorry bother you? Leave a comment if you like to share.   


How to say sorry in Japanese?:




Why Japanese say sorry too much?:

Three meanings of sumimasen :

Madame RIRI:

Laurier Press:


  1. Sangam Kuikel 3 years Reply

    Japanese have respect for everyone each person, Casually most of the time everywhere they use this word ”sorry” I think they don’t want to disturb and discuss to others for the normal things. They do apologize also but it’s very hard to apologize because they always follow the best process and method.

  2. Beth Parkhurst 3 years Reply

    When I was a young girl in the, there was a stereotype of Japanese people apologizing excessively. But I’ve never met a Japanese or Japanese-American person who apologized too much, either in this country or in Japan. I’m happy to say that my impression of people in Japan is that they, like people in England and Ireland, are more courteous than the average American.

    When I visited Japan, I found the phrase “sumi masen” quite useful.

    • Juju Kurihara 3 years

      In American old films, I find people are more courteous than people in nowadays. I personally think “sorry” can ease many situations but since while I have stopped saying it because everytime I say, some people get annoyed. 

      But of course when I go to Japan, I say it more, knowing that is the way it works. 

      Thank you for sharing your thought.  

  3. Al 3 years Reply

    I quite like how much Japan likes ‘sorry’ – but there are times when I suppose it becomes just an automatic response, not a heartfelt thing, so it’s really down to the individual situation. (I’m guessing the Koreans wanted deeds or punishment rather than words/gestures in the case you highlighted?) The English in particular are often accused of ‘too much sorry,’ too! Took me ages to get out of the habit, but sometimes it really IS someone else’s fault!

    • Juju Kurihara 3 years

      I have lived in the UK some time and notice that English people often say “sorry” although it wasn’t foreign for me. Instead, I felt home especially it was right after leaving Japan and I didn’t have a radical cultural shock. Why did you decide to get out of this habit? Have you experienced any inconvenience?

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *