Huh? The word for “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry” can mean “Thank you?” I don’t get it…

You’ve probably noticed by now that there are certain words and phrases like sumimasen(すみません) that don’t translate very well into English. This happens in every language, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with this and embrace it if you want to sound more natural when you speak. Today, we’re going to learn the importance of interpreting the context when speaking Japanese, particularly with sumimasen(すみません).

すいません suimasen , Sumimasen すみません
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Sumimasen(すみません) 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 known as a “high context” language. A high context language is one that conveys meaning without having to be specific or include all information. This means that when speaking Japanese, fewer words are used to convey meaning because much of the information or feelings expressed go unstated and rely on contextual elements. This can be difficult for language learners unaccustomed to this type of communication. Often times when Japanese people speak they will say one word and the listener is expected to infer what is meant based on unstated contextual factors. This manner of communication has its positive and negative sides.

Sumimasen(すみません) Can Mean Thank You?
Sumimasen(すみません) Can Mean Thank You?

A good thing about it is that you don’t have to string a bunch of words together with every sentence in order to express yourself. In other words, high context languages keep things short and sweet! However, it can be a challenge and sometimes frustrating to get used to reading non-verbal cues and the general atmosphere surrounding the exchange.

In contrast, English is a “low context” language. We assume the person to whom we’re speaking will have no idea what we’re talking about unless we are specific and detailed. Sometimes, in extreme cases, we may have to spell out what we’re trying to say word for word in order to make ourselves understood. If you watch a Japanese movie or show with English subtitles, you may see this in practice.

The English subtitles tend to contain more words and seem to convey much more than what the Japanese speaker on screen says. That is because English speakers need more detail to understand what is going on; whereas in Japanese, sometimes just one word will suffice.  

Because Japanese is a language that relies so much on context, you may find looking up words in an English-Japanese dictionary confusing. Why does one word have so many different translations? Well, that’s because in one situation it would have one meaning, and in another situation it would have a different meaning.Let’s look at sumimasen as an example.

Sumimasen(すみません): What Does it Really Mean?

The word sumimasen (すみません) is a really good example of how a word changes meaning depending on the context. Sumimasen is one of the first phrases Japanese-language students learn in their studies. It’s usually translated to “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry” in English. 

For example, if you’re shoulder-to-shoulder on a packed train and you arrive at your stop, you need to get past everyone so that you can get off. Therefore, you say, “Sumimasen,” and when people hear this, they will get out of the way to let you by. Another way sumimasen is used is to get someone’s attention—most commonly when calling a waiter over to your table at a restaurant. In these cases, sumimasen would mean “Excuse me.”

Another situation is if you’re at a restaurant and a waiter knocks your water glass over on the table and spills it. The waiter would then say, “Sumimasen” while he tries his best to clean up the mess. Do you see what happened? The same word is being used in different situations. In this situation we know based on what happened that the waiter isn’t asking you to move out of the way or trying to get your attention. In this context he has made a mistake that has caused discomfort to someone.

Therefore, it is clear that he is apologizing. Sumimasen in this case means, “I’m sorry.”On top of that, did you know that sumimasen can also mean “Thank you” in the right context? That’s right. The same word used to express shame is used to express gratitude. Whoa, right? Let’s take a look at some examples below.

Scenario 1: 

Mrs. Takahashi heads over to Mrs. Sato’s house for afternoon tea. When she arrives at the door, she has a gift that she intends to give Mrs. Sato. The gift is a box of individually-wrapped cakes that she brought back from her hometown. She rings the doorbell, and when Mrs. Sato opens the door, she is surprised when Mrs. Takahashi hands her the box of cakes. “Sumimasen,” Mrs. Sato says.

Huh? Why would she say “I’m sorry” instead of saying something like “Arigatou gozaimasu” (Thank you)? This is because Sumimasen is also a humble way of expressing gratitude in some contexts. Sumimasen in this situation is like expressing apology in a way. After all, Mrs. Takahashi did go through the trouble to buy the cakes and bring them over. What a burden it must have been on her, right? However, it’s less an overt apology and means something more along the lines of “Thank you for doing this for me despite the inconvenience.”

Scenario 2:

You’re sitting on the train, and you arrive at a stop. A woman sitting next to you gets up to get off, and you notice that she left her phone on her seat. You spring up, grab the phone, and rush out the door to catch up with her. “Sumimasen,” you say. The woman turns and sees that you have her phone. You hand it to her. “Sumimasen,” she replies as she puts it back into her pocket.

Wait, what? You both used the exact same word, and it meant two different things? In this situation, the woman is both humbly expressing her thanks while at the same time acknowledging the inconvenience it might have caused you to get up and chase her down.   

Scenario 3:

You’re approaching the door to a building, and you notice there are a number of people behind you who also want to go inside. You, being the kind and considerate person that you are, open the door and hold it open for them as they walk in. “Sumimasen,” the people say as they pass you by.

Why are they saying, “Sumimasen?” I’ll let you figure it out by interpreting the context for yourself.

In short, the major takeaway from this is that sumimasen can mean “Excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and it’s also a humble and polite way of saying “Thank you” when someone goes out of their way to help you.Now, some of you out there might be wondering about “Gomen nasai” (ごめんなさい).

Is it okay to use gomen nasai—another word for “I’m sorry”—in these cases to also mean “Thank you?” While gomen nasai and sumimasen have similar meanings, it doesn’t work in this case. Gomen nasai isn’t as formal as sumimasen, and it’s more commonly used to mean the literal “I’m sorry” rather than anything else. In the Mrs. Sato situation, her receiving the gift and saying “Gomen nasai” would sound strange. In scenario 2, however, where the waiter spilled your water, if he said “Gomen nasai” instead of “Sumimasen” that would be okay because he’s apologizing—often times people will say both.

“Sumimasen” vs “Gomennasai” The Battle Of The Apologies

Let’s Look at “Sumimasen”


The phrase “sumimasen” (すみません) is a really good example of this. You probably learned “sumimasen(すみません)” 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(すみません).”
  2. If the girl in front of you drops her train pass, and you pick it up for her, she might say “sumimasen(すみません).”
  3. When people held the door open for me in Japan, I would almost always say “sumimasen(すみません).”

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

Context is Key
Context is Key

When you say “sumimasen(すみません)” 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 azcknowledges 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

Sumimasen, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Communication in general relies heavily on context. 

Let’s compare English sentences to Japanese sentences as an example. In English, every sentence has to have a subject and a verb, otherwise it’s not a complete sentence and doesn’t make sense. Japanese, however, is known for leaving out the subject when it’s already understood. Sometimes other information within the sentence can be left out as well for the same reason. This is because as long as something can be inferred by the context it doesn’t need to be stated. Let’s look at an example below to show you what I mean. 

Example of Sumimasen

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. 

Example of Sumimasen: Sarah Ate Steak

Let’s start with the English sentence “Sarah ate steak.” 

The subject of the sentence is “Sarah,” the verb is “ate,” and the thing she ate was “steak.” It is a complete sentence, and it makes sense.

However, let’s say we take away the word “steak.” Now we have “Sarah ate.” It’s still a complete sentence that makes sense, but the sentence has changed meaning. Now we’re not even thinking about steak. All we’re told is that Sarah put something in her mouth, chewed, and swallowed.

Now let’s take out “Sarah” and leave the other two words. This time we have just “ate steak.” This is not a complete sentence and doesn’t make sense because there is no subject. The listener is left wondering what or who ate the steak?

Now let’s take out both “Sarah” and “steak.” Now all we have is “ate,” which also isn’t a complete sentence. It’s just a word hanging in the air, like a past tense verb exercise or something.

However, in Japanese, these incomplete sentences are embraced, and they make sense to Japanese speakers so long as all parties involved understand the context.

“Sarah ate steak,” when translated into Japanese is “Sarah wa suteeki wo tabemashita” (サラはステーキを食べた。).

Let’s say Sarah’s mom and dad are sitting at the kitchen table talking about her—what she did that day, if she finished her homework, etc. Because it’s already established once that they’re talking about Sarah, they don’t need to mention her name or use “she” again. They can completely remove the subject from the sentences they speak. Now, let’s say that the dad asks the mom what Sarah did before she left home. A completely acceptable response would be, “Suteeki wo tabeta” (ate steak).

Now, let’s say that the mom and dad are talking about what they would like to cook Sarah for dinner. The dad says, “Suteeki wa?” (How about steak?), and the mom responds with “Taberareta” (was eaten). Why does she respond this way? Because a. It’s already established that they’re talking about Sarah, so they can omit the subject, and b. The dad mentioned steak, so it’s also established that they’re talking about steak, so that can also be eliminated from the sentence. Therefore, just “Taberareta” is enough.   

This is why context is so important in Japanese. If you were to pop in on this conversation randomly and overhear the mom saying, “Taberareta” you might think, “What was eaten? Who ate it? Why don’t they just say “Kanojo ni suteeki ga taberareta”(She ate the steak)? 

The bottom line is to just keep an open mind when getting used to the high context nature of the Japanese language. With enough practice, pretty soon you’ll be using sumimasen and relying on situational context as well without even thinking about it. Just like the natives!

Sumimasen ! Learn Japanese Online with BondLingo?

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