Gomenasai: An Insight into a Japanese Apology

Proper behavior and etiquette are one of the major pillars of the Japanese culture. Respect and honor are two of the most important abstracts that the Japanese mentality takes full pride of. In almost all aspects of life, there are a number of small gestures, expressions, and manners which are strictly observed.

Formality is a strong way of showing respect either to an elder or a superior. The way a person speaks and acts is a strong reflection of a person’s character, and this is very important for the Japanese. This is why etiquette plays a big role in their daily lives.

The Casual Japanese Apology

Gomenasai in Kanji

It is well-known that gomennasai is used to express a very heartfelt apology. The most common way to write it is ( ごめんなさい ) which is in Hiragana, which is the syllabic system of writing for the Japanese. The thing about it is that there is no way for it to be written in kanji. There is no kanji character which can be used to mean directly as sorry as gomennasai. The nearest kanji reference would be  () which means to apologize.

Since an apology in Japanese can be expressed in a variety of ways, there is also a variety for which an apology can be written. Different words of apology can be written in different ways as well. This is one of the most important tricks to remember in learning the Japanese language.

Gomenasai in English: Gomenasai Meaning

In the English language, Gomenasai directly translates to “I’m Sorry”. It is a heartfelt and serious apology. It is often confused as a casual apology because it is expressed by a person who has a close relationship with the receiving end. It is a sincere, yet personal apologies like saying sorry to one’s best friend or family member.

The Formal Japanese Apology

Moushiwake gozaimasendeshita

Nowadays, not a lot of people use the expression moushiwake gozaimasen deshita anymore. It is the ancient form of expressing an apology. It was used by the samurai when they are caught doing something that would dishonor their clan. It is also usually expressed by samurai caught in clan wars.

Moushiwake Arimasen Deshita

A formal apology is appropriate for business related issues and the most commonly used expression would be the Mushiwake arimasen deshita. It is said that this expression is used whenever a person performs the dogeza, a special apology bow with one’s forehead is touching the floor. If gomennasai is used when talking to a group of people with a close relationship with the giver of the apology, the mushiwake arimasen deshita is used with people of a higher rank or status.

This is best used in writing for business related apologies. It is also used when talking to one’s superiors at work. It is also used when a high-ranking official apologizes to a group of people, like their staff or their consumers when a business has failed to provide what it has promised. It is also used by government officials who had been caught doing corruption.

How to properly express a Japanese apology

The Japanese take their apologies quite seriously especially when the offense is on a high scale like wartime offenses, corruption in the government, the bankruptcy of a business, and the like. Since etiquette is quite important for the Japanese, there are common procedures or ways to express a formal apology. This is so the receiving end of the act of contrition will know and understand full well the sincerity and that there is regret to the bad action.

One important thing to remember is the fact that looking grim is a must. Wearing funeral colors such as dark blue, black, or gray will show the formality and sincerity of an apology. This is also so that the person giving the apology will be received well with appropriate respect.

Another important thing to remember is that a formal apology is always partnered with a sincere bow. There are different forms of this, and the appropriate kind must be used as a means of showing proper etiquette. The deeper the bow, the more disregard a person gives to his current image. If this is so, this is generally perceived as a serious and regretful apology.

One other thing to note is the fact that persons who are in high positions who are performing formal expressions of an apology usually go even more dramatic. Some resign from their posts, others accept a demotion or other forms of punishment. It is said that a good leader takes the hit for the entire team. If a company fails to provide its promised goods and services, it is its highest leader that often takes the blame.

Dogeza: The “Apology Bow”

Known as the “apology bow”, a dogeza is one of the most special and formal etiquette element from the Japanese culture. It is often used in general to show one’s acknowledgment and deference to another person’s status. It is used by people who have done something really dishonorable towards another person and they are strongly expressing their guilt and deep apology.

There are two different dogeza stances which are used in the Japanese culture although both are done in a kneeling position. The first dogeza stance is done by going into a seated position with both legs tucked below the buttocks. The hands are placed in front, the back is slightly arched to turn the head slightly towards the floor.

The second dogeza stance is much more intense as the individual asking for an apology would kneel directly to the ground, and bow until the forehead reaches the ground. This is an intense way of showing one’s weakness and surrender to another person who is the receiver of the apology.

In historical Japanese, records show that commoners often perform the dogeza when meeting people of much nobler status. As described, they fall to the ground and are seen putting their hands together like in a prayer whenever they meet or encounter noblemen. In many modern times, the dogeza is performed in general when an individual meets another person of a very important status and when expressing the feeling of shame.

Other than expressing a deep and intense apology, the dogeza is used in a variety of purposes as well. One example when using the dogeza is when meeting a spouse’s parent or parents for the first time. It is also used to express respect for the elders, including the ancestors. It is also believed that people perform the dogeza when being interviewed by bosses or high-ranking officials in the business.

Learning about the language

Different apology statements and their meaning

What is interesting in many cultures is that for a single idea, say an apology, there are a group of ways of expressing them. There are casual ways that can be observed with close kin and friends. There are honorifics to follow for superiors and the elderly. For professionalism, there are also formal versions or alternatives available as well. There are certain gestures which are preferred over the other, depending on the receiving end of an expression. There are certain cases when a bow is more preferred than a handshake and more. For a single word like “sorry”, the Japanese has quite a few alternatives.


This word literally translates to rudeness or impoliteness in English and is commonly used as a mild form of apology. It can be heard to mean “I am rude” and it is used for simple things like accidentally brushing elbows with another person on a train platform, or when disrupting a person on a dinner table when reaching for something. It is quite informal and is normally used in simple conversational language. Furthermore, a lot of vernacular experts believe that this word is used by groups of older men and are not used commonly by the younger generations.


This particular word is very similar to Shikkei, the only difference is that Shitsurei is more commonly used in conversation than the first. Both are used to mean rudeness during a brief and mild breach of etiquette whether it is accidental or intentional. Some say that shikkei and shitsurei should more closely translate to “Excuse me” or “Pardon me” rather than “I’m sorry” because of the context for which it is used.


According to many, this is one of the most versatile words in the common Japanese language. It can be used in a variety of contexts and situations and can be sparingly used between “Excuse me” and “I’m sorry”. There are times as well when sumimasen can be used as a form of asking for favors translating to “do you mind if…” or “could you please…”

Unlike other words like Shitsurei and Shikkei, Sumimasen is actually a very formal word although it is often used in regular conversations. There is no age or generation distinction when it comes to using the words sumimasen.  People use it as a straight up apology, as a means of showing thankfulness, and even when making a request. People also use this when exchanging greetings, or when taking leaves during a meeting. For instance, borrowing some coins from a friend is a certain scenario where sumimasen can be used. Another would be asking for favors like passing a condiment at the dining table.

Sometimes, it is used to express an apology for minor incidents. Oftentimes, it can be used as a means of saying gratitude. For instance, it is a way of showing gratitude for a person to go out of their way to do something bothersome. Since it is quite a versatile and common word, there must be caution observed when using it. There are some people who abuse the use of the word.


Gomenasai can be closely interchanged with sumimasen. However, compared to the latter, gomenasai is less versatile and can only be used to directly mean “sorry”.  It is often used as a direct apology, but it can only be used with someone in close kin or friendship. It is used to express apologies for personal relationships like boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, family members and the like. For apologies which are not on a personal level, sumimasen can be used.

There are certain cases when gomenasai can be used in other situations as well. When visiting a house or a shop, some people use “gomenkudasai” as a means of getting attention or asking for help and assistance.  However, the word gomenasai is not used in writing especially in business situations. Although it is a straight-up one-word apology, there are more formal terminologies to mean an apology in Japanese.

Gomen and Gomen ne

If gomenasai is already informal and casual, gomen and gomen ne are even more comfortable. These are shortened versions of gomenasai which are used among people with very close relationships. It is casual and cannot be used in formal situations.

For instance, gomen is used to apologize for being late, for accidentally stepping on a friend’s toe, and the like. It is short and quick and is not used for expressing deep apologies. Gomen ne, on the other hand, is more inquisitive which directly translates to “Sorry, Okay?”. A lot of people say that this is more often used by women because it sounds too endearing and sweet.

Japan’s most popular apologies

The Japanese have been known to release never ending apologies for the wartime crimes that have been done by the Japanese government and military during the Second World War. The Prime Ministers through time have expressed their remorse and regret repetitively for the past few decades as a form of apology for the sins of their forefathers. So famous are these apologies that there are now modern songs written about it.

 In fact, in January of 1992 Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa has apologized three times in international media for the war crimes that have been done by the Japanese military during the Second World War. They are atoning for the atrocities which to this date have not been forgotten.