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There are several situations in which one of these words (phrases?) should be used but there's not usually a 1:1 mapping between any two languages.

  • Get somebody's permission. English: "excuse me", "I beg your pardon"; Spanish: "disculpe"
  • Getting past somebody or through a crowd. English: "excuse me"; Spanish: "con permiso"
  • Apologising: English: "I'm sorry"; Spanish: "lo siento", "perdón"

In Japanese, which of "すみません" (sumimasen) or "ごめんなさい" (gomen'nasai) works for each situation? (And did I leave out any situations or phrases?)

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1  
There's also ごめん which seems to be more casual than the other two. –  sartak Jun 1 '11 at 13:37
3  
For Spanish apologising, I'd say "Lo siento." more... :D –  Alenanno Jun 1 '11 at 13:39

5 Answers 5

up vote 31 down vote accepted

On a basic level, すみません is to apologize for something that you have a "right" to do, such as when passing through a crowd or getting a waiter's attention at a restaurant. ごめんなさい, on the other hand, is for when you have done something inappropriate. So on the way through a crowd, you would say すみません to ask people to let you through, but if you accidentally step on someone's foot along the way, you would use ごめんなさい to apologize.

Incidentally, すみません is also for saying "thank you" when someone has gone to the trouble of doing something for you, such as pouring a cup of tea. Although some Japanese may consider it more honest (素直【すなお】) to simply say ありがとう, すみません ("I apologize [for having caused you to go to the trouble of doing this]") is the more natural Japanese response in these situations.

申【もう】し訳【わけ】ありません (or 申【もう】し訳【わけ】ございません) is a more formal version of ごめんなさい which literally means, "There is no excuse." Often you'll hear it at press conferences when the latest company president to be caught up in some scandal has to publicly apologize with a deep bow in front of the flashbulbs.

Both すみません and ごめんなさい have informal versions: すまん (or すまない) and ごめん. The usage rules stated above do not change with these versions, but as with as with all informal constructions, you should reserve them for casual settings or situations where your position is above that of the listener's.

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12  
+1 すみません really means "It is not finished" as in "I am now obligated for your kindness and mean to return a favor to you." Often it is the perfect way to say thank you. –  Robusto Jun 1 '11 at 13:52
    
@Robusto: An excellent point. Knowing the actual definition of the word definitely enlightens one as to the Japanese view of gratitude and apology. –  Derek Schaab Jun 1 '11 at 14:06
    
there's alot of verbs with すむ, do you mean this verb?: 済む –  Pacerier Jun 17 '11 at 11:33
    
@Pacerier: Yes, IIRC that's the one. –  Derek Schaab Jun 17 '11 at 12:24
    
What is the literal for ごめん anyway? That's something that's always "bothered" me. Plus I haven't found it in the dictionaries that I've used. –  dotnetN00b Feb 28 '12 at 16:23

すみません and ごめんなさい can be used interchangeably in some cases but there are some differences.

すみません:

  1. It's a bit more formal than ごめんなさい;
  2. In general, it's the one you use when you apologize to a senior or superior people (in this last situation, using "ごめんなさい" might sound childish - see the following point);
  3. It's used more by older people than by younger people;
  4. Apart from using it to apologize for some mistake, you can use it because you inconvenienced someone, expressing gratitude;
  5. Like Derek said, the informal alternative for this one is すまん.

ごめんなさい:

  1. Among family members or close friends, it's the preferred choice;
  2. You can alternartive use ごめんね (casual) or ごめん (more casual);
  3. It can not be used like すみません in point 4 (see above).

See this site which has a good schematized explanation (similar to this one).

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I'd like to add: ごめんなさい would also be used for serious yet informal apology, especially when you have that guilt building up inside you. Otherwise, you can add ね to reduce the seriousness to a great degree (ごめんなさいね is just as casual as ごめんね) Oh yeah @Alenanno, かみましたね. すみま「め」んってかわいいな –  syockit Jun 2 '11 at 0:24
    
Thanks @syockit :) What did you say in the last sentence? I'm not that fluent in Japanese yet :D I can read it but I can't understand the meaning :D –  Alenanno Jun 2 '11 at 0:29
    
You kind of "bit" on your words, accidentally saying すみまめん instead of すみません. How cute! –  syockit Jun 2 '11 at 0:33
    
@syockit: Oh my... Thanks for telling me! XD By the way, you could edit it... :) –  Alenanno Jun 2 '11 at 0:55
    
すみません's informal alternative is すまない. I'd consider すまん dialectal/non-standard. –  dainichi Apr 4 at 0:33

Both すみません and ごめんなさい mean sorry. However, there is a slight difference:

ごめんなさい is an apologetic sorry. It's used when you've clearly done something WRONG, and is a very straightforward, "I'm sorry".

すみません is a subtle sorry. You say this simply because you feel bad, guilty, or even embarrassed. It's more of a "sorry for the inconvenience" or "sorry for the trouble" kind of sorry. With this in mind, it can also be used in a variety of situations:

  • You're pushing through a crowd of people, and you feel like you're causing trouble or being an inconvenience.

  • Someone gives you something or does something for you. You feel like they went out of their way to do this, and you feel bad.

  • You enter/leave a room, and feel like you're being disruptive.

etc...

Also, most people consider すみません to be more formal because it's a more heartfelt. You're saying sorry because you feel like a douchebag, whereas ごめんなさい is just a straight up "I'm sorry" and, depending on the situation, can sound like a "oops, my bad" kind of sorry.

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I also found out that すみません can be used to express "I am sorry" when doing something wrong like unintentionally stepping on someone's foot.

And for expressing "pardon" if we don't understand what the interlocutor says I think we can use 'はい?' with rising intonation. And 'はい?' here is a question like "yes?" Or "I'm sorry?".

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very roughly speaking, すみません=excuse me and ごめんなさい= i'm sorry

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