Updated: October 03, 2016
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What's The Concept Of Apology in Japan: Observing The Use Of “Sorry”

Some people say that Japanese apologize too much and say “Sorry” even in situations where they should say “Thank you”. Certainly, they use the word “Sorry” or “Excuse me” many times in daily lives, and it may sometimes perplex people from other countries. In this article I will try to examine why the Japanese tend to apologize, and look at the factors affecting the use of such expressions.

The meaning of an apology

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Let’s start by analyzing the meaning of an apology. In what situation is such an expression used? According to Spencer-Oatey [ed.] (2008), a sociolinguist, the actions for an apology are defined as follows.
Apologies: Apologies are typically post-event speech acts, in the sense that some kind of offence or violation of social norms has taken place. In other words, people’s sociality rights have been infringed in some way; for example, if they have been kept waiting for an hour, their equity rights have been infringed through the ‘cost’ of wasting their time; (…)
(Spencer-Oatey (2008), p.19)

In summary, we now know that the expressions are used when some socially undesirable event took place. It seems that this is a pretty natural and understandable conclusion.

The feelings of gratitude

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So then, why do Japanese overuse apologies even in situations that they should show feelings of gratitude? Based on the definition above, I think the reason is that the sense of gratitude is incorporated in the apology. Many Japanese tend to avoid imposing lot of burdens on the other people. Using a term in the definition, for many Japanese, imposing even the light burden can be a “violation of social norms”. Therefore, Japanese first utter “Sorry”, as they thought that they somehow imposed on the others. However, of course, they feel gratitude at the same time. As a result, they say “Sorry” incorporating the feelings of gratitude.


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Up to here, we observed the factors which make Japanese apologize often. However, what I want to emphasize is that the way of apologizing greatly depends on the cultural values in each community. This is an ordinary conclusion, but it is also a point that we tend to forget, especially when we communicate with people from other communities. Therefore, it can be said that we should be careful about this point when creating relationships, especially with Japanese people.
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