This article was kindly submitted by Michiko Utami, a local Japanese teacher.
When your ears have become accustomed to Japanese sounds, one of the words you frequently hear is sumimasen. Sumimasen is often translated as 'I'm sorry', but it can also be used for 'Excuse me' and 'Thank you'.
Sumimasen is often used to make apologies. When you are late for work, it is good to say "Okurete sumimasen." (I'm sorry I was late.) Or when you make a mistake,"Sumimasen. Machigaemashita." (I'm sorry, I made a mistake.) You can show your regrets for what happened the other day by "Konoaida wa sumimasen-deshita". In the Japanese language, there is another word "gomen nasai" which means "I'm sorry". However, "gomen nasai" and its casual form "gomen" are usually used with your family and friends and not to your superiors or people you don't know well.
When you keep elevator doors open for your Japanese co-workers, they may say "Sumimasen", but not "Arigato-gozaimasu". (Thank you very much.) In such a situation, "sumimasen" is used to express "I'm sorry to trouble you". In Japanese culture, many people say "sumimasen" even when they have done nothing wrong, or when something happens that they could not have helped. Otherwise, people might think they are indelicate or a bit rude. On the other hand, saying "arigato" could imply that you take it for granted that the person does this favor for you. So, it is often avoided when speaking to superiors and people you do not know well.
When you want to get someone's attention, you can also say "sumimasen". For example, when you want to order at a restaurant, put up your hand and say, "Sumimasen!" Or when you want to talk to your boss, you start a conversation with "Chotto sumimasen". (Could I have a minute?) After sumimasen, it can be expected that you will make some kind of request. So, Japanese people sometimes just say "sumimasen", omitting their request, and just wait for the listener to do some favor. If you are seated on a train and a Japanese person standing in front of you just says "Sumimasen", it is your turn to react, probably to move over for the person.
There are some situations that this all-around word cannot be used, while its English equivalents can. For instance, you cannot use it to express sympathy. Therefore, 'I'm sorry to hear that' cannot be translated into "sumimasen", but can be expressed as "Sore wa okinodokuni" or "Zannen deshita ne". Another example is when someone praises you. If you speak some Japanese, you probably have had many chances to hear, "Nihongo jozu desu ne" (You speak Japanese well) Here, you cannot reply with "sumimasen", but talking like a Japanese, you would say, "Sonna koto arimasen yo" (That's not true.) or "Mada mada desuyo". (My Japanese is not good enough.)
Now you can see how "sumimasen" is useful in communicating with Japanese, and how it is difficult to translate even a simple word from one language to another. So, please do not be surprised when you offer some chocolate by saying, 'Please have some chocolate', and your Japanese friend says 'Oh, I'm sorry'.
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