Japanese tourists have a tenancy to say “I am sorry” during almost any verbal encounter with strangers while overseas. They are renowned for saying sorry in the most unlikely situations. This is because Japanese have been culturally and socially conditioned to “apologize” to strangers or people they don’t know well. However, it doesn’t quite work well in English and with the western mindset. The problem also lies with the Japanese interpretation of “I’m sorry” - Introducing SU-MI-MA-SEN.
SU-MI-MA-SEN is a great power word. This one word has three meanings. It can be used to say;”Excuse me”, to get someone’s attention, “I’m sorry”, to apologise or “Thank you”, to express appreciation.
How to say sorry in Japanese
Most Japanese take “sorry” to mean SU-MI-MA-SEN. This is the reason why Japanese will often say “I’m sorry” instead of “Excuse me” or “Thank you”. I consider SU-MI-MA-SEN a power word because of its versatility, social and cultural importance and colloquial nature. You will be scoring big points with your Japanese friends if you can use SU-MI-MA-SEN to express the three meaning I explained earlier.
More Common Japanese Words
Japanese can communicate a lot with few words. I strongly believe in learning vocabulary from Japanese rather than textbooks. Text books generally go into the grammar to much. It is somewhat typical and and very “Japanese” that many Japanese authors teach how the the Japanese language should be spoken rather than how it actually is spoken. Text books generally avoid colloquial Japanese and go for polite “textbook” language and grammar. Japanese Grammar is very confusing and difficult to learn for the beginner. So if possible make some Japanese friends and get them to teach you heaps of vocabulary.
The Japanese language has some single word expressions will that translate to phrases in English. These words are amazing as they can express the speaker’s feelings, thoughts and intentions without being direct. This is the real spoken language. Japanese teachers and authors will generally teach phrases with the subject and polite verb forms. This is not how Japanese genrally speak when relaxed with friends. Japanese teachers feel compelled to teach “correct Japanese” with a strong emphasis on grammar. Here are some one word phrases you would learn from your regular Japanese guy or girl.