There may be more than a million ways to use the word sumimasen (すみません) in Japanese. In fact, if you're studying Japanese at all, you'll probably find yourself using it without even meaning to! It can mean "sorry", "excuse me", and "hey there" among other things. However, one of the most common situations where you'll say sumimasen is to say thank you!
Sumimasen (すみません) instead of arigatou (ありがとう)
"So, when someone does something for me, I should say 'arigatou,' right?"
Well, not always...
Arigatou (thank you) can feel a bit heavy in certain situations. For example, if someone passes you the soy sauce at the dinner table, and then something else, and then another thing, pretty soon you're saying arigatou far too much. Plus, it just wouldn't sound like natural Japanese. This is where sumimasen shines!
It is a lightweight or casual thank you, often paired with a gentle nod of the head, kind of like you're bowing a bit. Think of it as though you're saying, "sorry to make you go out of the way for what you did for me" in small situations.
Other times when sumimasen is probably more appropriate than arigatou:
- When somebody corrects your writing mistake
- When someone holds a door open for you
- When a server drops off your order at your table
Sumimasen can mean "sorry" when you want to make a small apology
You might want to say, "oops, sorry about that!" as you get in someone's way at the train station.
The equivalent in Japanese is a very shallow bow of the head and a quick "sumimasen."
Did you step on someone's foot? Maybe stop, bow more deeply, and really clearly say, "sumimasen" to them. If you know the word gomennasai (ごめんなさい), you may be tempted to say that instead, but it's better reserved for people you are close with. A clear sumimasen will be sufficient.
One of the most frequent uses of sumimasen in Japanese is when you're at a restaurant, bar, or izakaya.
Unlike in many Western countries, it's totally expected that you will call out to your server when you need service at your table. There's no whistling or snapping your fingers to get their attention – simply call out, "sumimasen!" and someone will typically come over.
It can be a bit nerve wracking the first few times you use sumimasen to call a server, but watch and listen to others around you for their tone, and you'll see how easy it is.
Likewise, if you're on the street and someone in front of you drops their wallet or something, you may want to call out, "hey, you!"
Here again, sumimasen is the right way to call out to them. It's almost like you're saying, "hey, excuse me!" to someone you don't know.
I didn't catch that. What did you say?
"Excuse me" as in, "I beg your pardon?" is a bit different than what we explained above. Just saying "excuse me?" (sumimasen?) would likely confuse the person you are speaking to.
When you don't hear someone and you want to say, "excuse me, can you repeat that?" you would say "sumimasen, mou ichido onegaishimasu" (すみません、もう一度お願いします). Literally, this means "sorry, one more time please."
To learn more about hearing and being heard, see our article on the uses of kikoeru vs. kikeru.
You'll say sumimasen a lot in Japan. It's ok.
Especially when you're new to Japan, you'll run into situations a lot where you can't understand people, you've gotten in their way, or maybe you just totally made a dumb mistake (like trying to go the wrong way through the ticket gate at the train station). It happens.
The good news is, armed with the word sumimasen you can fumble your way through just about anything. Pair it with a bow, and you'll look like a veteran Japanese speaker.