Heck… maybe more… but I’ve only got 20. Or maybe I only feel like doing 20 right now. Sorry.
As a Canadian—often considered the most polite of the so-called English speakers. Sorry if you don't agree with that—we are used to apologizing for things we haven’t done in the hope that the rest of the world will continue to like us.
Here’s how to tell the difference between an American and a Canadian with a simple sentence:
American: “Eh! Get off the car!”
Canadian: “Get off the car, eh.”
The American way will surely make anyone on your car get off it immediately.
The Canadian way will garner apologies from everyone involved and possibly and possibly an invite for a free beer to apologize further for any embarrassment the car sitter may have caused the person having to utter such a foul Canadian threat.
Sadly, I am not kidding.
While Canadian apologies are pretty much straightforward, Japanese apologies are a complete dogs breakfast, and by that I mean it is so mixed up that it is often difficult for any non-native Japanese speaker to understand the layers and layers of regret that are attached to a particular apology.
While I was in Japan, I think I only used two of the Japanese “sorry” phrases—not because I didn’t need to, but because I had no effin’ clue that there were other ways to apologize.
I’m a North American guy, so when I screw up and need to apologize (and because I am Canadian, I will) I might proffer chocolates, flowers, jewelry, or if it's to a guy friend give a case of his favorite beer, a ‘sorry, man’ and a punch in the arm. The latter two for sure.
As well as the gift or punch in the arm, there is a small bit of verbalizing too, with a limited vocabulary for us English users. There’s: "I’m Sorry"; "My apologies"; "I regret"; … and that's pretty much it in English. Maybe also: "Duuuude" or a spelling variation of "faaaaak."
There is of course the professional athlete or idol manner of saying sorry that involves the injured party receiving some sort of super-sized diamond ring from the apologizer who slept around on the ‘victim’ and some sort of news conference to announce that all is well after performing a public apology that I have no idea why anyone needs to know about in the first place.
One could also give the wife half of everything one owns and will ever own, but that isn't so much an apology as it is a court-ordered mandate.
Not including ritualistic suicide that really has one spilling their guts to affect an apology, there are at least 20 ways to say 'sorry' in Japan.
Let's take a look:
- Gomen - ごめん… that's the casual way. It’s like “sorry”;
- Gomen-nasai - ごめんなさい - the formal way. Akin to "I am so very sorry”;
- Gomen-ne - ごめんね - the friendly way. Like "Sorry, man”;
- Warui-warui - 悪い悪い or very casual, "my bad." You can say that amongst friends;
- Sumimasen - すみません - “excuse me”… but it depends on how one uses it. I used to say “excuse me” as I walked between people, but it is also a means of apology. It’s like “Sumimasen, I’m sorry to bother you, but do you have a pencil?”. I have never heard it shortened in the way gomen-nasai has been;
- Sumimasen deshita - すみません でした - is the past tense version of sumimasen, and is a casual but formal way of apologizing to one’s boss for a minor transgression;
- Yurushite - 許して - to ask for forgiveness… which sounds like it would be formal, but it’s a slang and casual way;
- Kanben - 勘弁 - to plead for mercy. It’s not all that formal… in fact it’s low-level Japanese… the way a servant might apologize to a master… a commoner way;
- Moushiwake nai - 申し訳ない - considered to be formal, but is nowadays only used in business correspondence (not even face-to-face)… it would be used in the same manner as "Sorry for not getting back to you sooner”;
- Moushiwake gozaimasen deshita - 申し訳ございません でした — is a polite formal apology used when you or your company has screwed up, like accidentally releasing a television that doesn’t work very well and needs a recall;
- Moushiwake arimasen deshita - 申し訳ありませんでした - even more polite. Use this to apology after your company releases a very dangerous defective product like a lithium ion battery that could explode into flames and burn up an airplane;
- Makoto ni moushiwake gozaimasen deshita - 誠に申し訳ございませんでした - This phrase is mostly used by dishonored samurai and ninja. Use this when you've fallen in love with the samurai's or ninja's daughter. I would never use this. Not just because the samurai are no more, and ninja are well, ninja and who the fug knows if they exist or not… but rather, I wouldn’t use this because there’s a lot of syllables to memorize. Note to men, avoid samurai daughters unless you are a ninja;
- Shazai - 謝罪 - another sort of business formal apology, but again it is used to apologize for "giving you more work, because I need your help on the project." I am unsure if anything like that has ever been uttered outside of Japan;
- Awaserukaoganai - 合わせる顔がない - this one is heavy… and translates to… I am so embarrassed, I can not even face you… which isn't an apology so much as it shows that one feels really bad about what they have done - embarrassment. Let’s hope you don’t think you ever have to use this one in Japan;
- Benkai no yochiganai - 弁解の余地がない - This translates to “There is no excuse for what I have done.” Which, if you think of it, is the crux of any apology. But in this case, it’s a strong apology with the apologizer showing real remorse… like “I don’t know why I slept around on you, but I am soooo sorry.” There may have been plenty of reasons for why you slept around, but in the long run, nothing really matters when you are trying to save your own skin… just shut up and plead for forgiveness;
- Hansei - 反省 - This word translates to "remorse”, but I might translate it as "regret" and use it, for example, for failing to be more productive on my day off. Or, Japan regrets being a right royal dick to everybody during WWII. Not a direct translation;
- Owabi - お詫び - one the more formal formal ways to offer a deeply remorseful and heartfelt apology… like “I am sorry that my treatment of your husband caused him to think less of himself. I feel like a total jerk and I will do everything I can to make it up to you and him. Especially you… dinner?” Okay, maybe not that last bit;
- Shitsurei - 失礼 - This translates to “I am rude”, and is an informal and mild manner of apologizing. It’s like if you reach for the pepper mill at the dinner table via a boarding house reach… you can apologize to everyone with the mild “shitsurei”;
- Shikkei - 失敬 - This is another way of saying “I am rude”… but in this case, rather than you apologizing to your mom or friends, this one is being used by Japanese businessmen (salarymen). Probably with some sort of alcohol-induced slurred speech;
- Shitsurei shimashita - 失礼しました - This is the formal past tense version of shitsurei. When you speak in the past tense in Japan, it sounds more formal. In this case, it’s like saying: “I was rude. Sorry.” It’s an acknowledgement of your poor behavior and comes with the knowledge that you will not continue it.
Oh yes... bowing is involved for all verbalizing of an apology. The deeper the need to apologize, the deeper the bow.
I am sure there are more, and if you would like to add to the list, please provide the romaji and the kanji (if possible) along with a definition or example of when it should be used.
Osaki ni shitsureishimasu,
PS: That phrase above my name is what one would say to every co-worker when you leave work BEFORE them. You are basically apologizing for your own laziness and marveling at their own super-heroic attempt to curry favor with the bosses. As a foreign assistant English teacher on a contract, don’t worry about any stigma you think you might cause from leaving early. You put in your time, do your job, go home. The Japanese need to learn that that type of behavior is perfectly acceptable rather than putting in four hours of unpaid overtime every night.
Work is not life… unless it’s something you really, really, really enjoy doing and it’s your own company or business.