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Expressing Gratitude and Regret in Japanese

Phrases of gratitude and apology are the most important and essential phrases in any language. Suppose a stranger holds a door open for you when you're entering a building. What do you say? Suppose you accidentally step on someone's foot. How do you say I'm sorry? This articles answers these questions.

Showing gratitude

You may already know the Japanese word arigato (ah-ree-gah-tohh; thanks), but did you know that you can use it only with family, friends, co-workers, subordinates, or strangers who look easy-going and younger than you? When talking to teachers, bosses, strangers who look older than you, and strangers who look as if they're not so easy-going, don't say arigato to mean thank you, say one of the following:

  • Arigato gozaimasu. (ah-ree-gah-tohh-goh-zah-ee-mah-soo)
  • Domo arigato gozaimasu. (dohh-moh ah-ree-gah-tohh goh-zah-ee-mah-soo)
  • Domo. (dohh-moh)

The easiest phrase of gratitude is domo — an adverb that literally means indeed or very much but can be understood as thank you. It's a short, convenient, and yet polite phrase of gratitude that can be used in any context. If you want to express a greater-than-normal degree of gratitude, you can use one of the longer, more fully-spelled-out phrases, like Arigato gozaimasu or Domo arigato gozaimasu.

Apologizing

To apologize for something you've done or for causing someone pain or inconvenience, say Domo sumimasen (dohh-moh soo-mee-mah-sehn; I'm very sorry.) or just Sumimasen in Japanese. Domo is an interesting adverb. Its function is to make you sound serious, and it can be used with either Arigato gozaimasu (Thank you) or Sumimasen (I'm sorry.). If you just say domo by itself, it's interpreted as thank you, but not as sorry. So, watch out! In an informal context, Gomennasai (goh-mehn-nah-sah-ee; Sorry) is just fine.

To get someone's attention, say Chotto sumimasen (choht-toh soo-mee-mah-sehn; Excuse me a little)or just Sumimasen.

You may have noticed that Sumimasen means both I'm sorry and Excuse me, but the context and your facial expression will clarify which one you mean. Japanese even say Sumimasen in contexts where English speakers would say Thank you, as if to say Excuse me for making you feel that you had to go to all that trouble.

Talkin' the Talk

Paul bumps into a woman at the airport.
Woman: Itai. ee-tah-ee. Ouch!
Paul: A, domo sumimasen. Daijobu desu ka. ahh, dohh-moh soo-mee-mah-sehn. dah-ee-johh-boo deh-soo kah. Oh, I'm sorry. Are you all right?
Woman: E, daijobu desu. ehh, dah-ee-johh-boo deh-soo. Yes, I'm fine.

Paul picks up the little package on the floor right behind the woman.
Paul: Kore wa otaku no desu ka. koh-reh wah oh-tah-koo noh deh-soo kah. Is this yours?
Woman: Hai, so desu. Watashi no desu. Domo. hah-ee, sohh deh-soo. wah-tah-shee noh deh-soo. dohh-moh. Yes, it is. It's mine. Thank you.

Words to Know

Arigato

ah-ree-gah-tohh

Thanks

Chotto sumimasen.

choht-toh soo-mee-mah-sehn

Excuse me.

Daijobu desu ka.

dah-ee-johh-boo deh-soo kah

Are you okay?

Domo

dohh-mo

Thank you

Domo sumimasen.

dohh-moh soo-mee-mah-sehn

I'm sorry.

Gomennasai

goh-mehn-nah-sah-ee

Sorry

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