Sumimasen Can Mean Thank You? You’ve probably noticed by now that there are words and phrases in Japanese that don’t translate directly into English. This happens in every language, and it’s good to learn so you sound more natural when you speak.

Sumimasen Can Mean Thank You?

Sometimes in Japanese, words that we think we know how to translate will take on a different meaning depending on context.

Context in Japanese

Japanese is what is called a “high context” language. This means that when you speak Japanese with someone, they’ll expect you to understand a lot of background information, and they won’t say it. The good thing with this is that it shortens sentences when you’re speaking. The bad thing is that you need to be aware of context and able to read the room. 

In contrast, English is a “low context” language. We assume the person listening has no background information, and we pretty much spell everything out. If you watch a Japanese movie or show with English subtitles, you might start to notice the differences with context. Usually the English subtitles are a bit more detailed than the Japanese dialogue. 

The natural emphasis on context in Japanese means that you’ll find words that can mean a lot of different things because of the context of the situation. 

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Let’s Look at “Sumimasen”

The phrase “sumimasen” (すみません) is a really good example of this. You probably learned “sumimasen” pretty early, and you probably know that it means “excuse me.” This is a pretty good translation, but not a complete one.

Besides meaning “excuse me” to get someone’s attention or excuse yourself from a room, it can also mean “thank you.”

For example

  1. if someone gives you a really nice gift, and you want to thank them politely, you can say “sumimasen.”
  2. If the girl in front of you drops her train pass, and you pick it up for her, she might say “sumimasen.”
  3. When people held the door open for me in Japan, I would almost always say “sumimasen.”

In all of these situations, the English equivalent would be “thank you.” So why not just say “arigatou?”

When you say “sumimasen,” it’s more humble and polite than “arigatou” (On a side note, if you’re speaking to a stranger, you should always say the full phrase “arigatou gozaimasu”). It’s kind of like saying “Thank you, but also I’m sorry for inconveniencing you.” 

You would generally use “sumimasen” in this way if someone is actively going out of their way to help you. It’s humble, polite, and acknowledges the work of someone else.

Going along with this, the word “gomen” (ごめん) can be used the same way. The difference with this one is the level of formality. “Sumimasen” is polite, and can be used with strangers, your boss, and anyone else who outranks you. “Gomen,” “gomenne,” and even “gomennasai” are more on the informal side of life. Don’t say “gomen” to your boss, but do say it to your friend.

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Context is Key

There are several other words that really depend on context for their meaning in Japanese. As you keep learning, you’ll definitely run into some. 

Besides these individual words, a lot of spoken Japanese is going to rely heavily on context. Let’s look at an example that illustrates this. 

Example

We’ll start with the English sentence “Sarah ate pie.” Sarah can be replaced by “she” and pie can be replaced by “it” without changing the meaning. But if you shorten the sentence to “Sarah ate,” it changes the meaning. All the words are necessary in this sentence for it to stay the same.

Now let’s look at Japanese. If we directly translate this sentence, we would end up with something like “Sara ga pai wo tabeta” (サラがパイを食べた). However, this sentence can change a lot with context. 

If you are talking to someone, and you are already talking about Sarah, there is no reason for you to say her name again, unless for emphasis. So this sentence could become “Pai wo tabeta,” and it would mean the exact same thing. If you are already talking about the delicious pie your friend made, and someone asks you who ate it, you could reply with “Sara ga tabeta.”

And if you have been talking about Sarah and pie the whole time, you could just say “Tabeta,” and it would still mean “Sarah ate pie.”

If we change the context of this, the word “tabeta” could mean anything from “Sarah ate pie” to “I ate three apples” to “Godzilla ate the building.” These would all be valid English translations of “tabeta” depending on the context in which it is used. 

This is why context is so important in Japanese, and why so many words and sentences will rely on it. Make sure to practice being an active listener so you can pick up on context and keep improving your Japanese. 

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