If you are familiar with Japanese drama, or Jdorama as it is usually called among the fans, you will have encountered the word "sumimasen" countless times. This is a very interesting word and it is something that is more deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, for it can mean different things, depending on how it is used. It is one of the first words learned by students of the Japanese language because it is taught early on, and is a word that is commonly used in various situations. However, it is only when one is already immersed in Japanese culture and tradition that the subtle meanings of sumimasen in different contexts become clear.
Politeness and courtesy
For the Japanese, even the smallest of favors contribute to forming mutual responsibilities and debts among the members of society. Public appearance and debt are top priority for the Japanese, and they usually adopt a humble position. Their interactions with other people put them in "debt" in various settings. This is clearly linguistically reflected in this particular word: sumimasen. Saying sumimasen is a way of acknowledging one's indebtedness to other people. It is said not because the Japanese are always apologetic. For them, sumimasen is a more polite way of saying thank you, as English speakers would normally utter.
Usage of sumimasen
Sumimasen is a formal and sincere way of apologizing. It can be used when offering an apology to anyone, even to strangers. The Japanese use gomennasai, which also means (I'm) sorry, when apologizing to someone they know personally, like family and close friends.
Sumimasen can also be a thank you as well as an apology. Although difficult to fully describe in English, the closest thing is a mixed feeling of thankfulness and regret. Let us say that you are paying for something at a convenience store that costs 210 yen and you gave the clerk 300 yen. The clerk asks you if you have 10 yen instead and you look around your bag for the exact change. The clerk appreciates your effort to look for the 10 yen and pay the exact amount, so she says sumimasen. She is saying that rather than arigatou, which means thank you, for her gratitude to you is deeper.
The word can be used in making a request. The closest equivalents in English for this would be "could you please," "do you mind" or "excuse me."
One of the words which is common among Japanese when they want to attract attention is to say, "Konnichiwa," or "Ano" but these words are usually used among acquaintances. The Japanese will say sumimasen as a polite way to get the attention of a stranger. It can also be used as a conversation closer, in a way that shows regret in leaving the company of someone. Sumimasen can also mean okay or yes, when used in a situation where someone who is quite busy takes the time to acknowledge that a person is waiting to be served.
Confusing as it is, sumimasen is one word that you should include in your list of basic Japanese words to learn.