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The Magic Word in Japan? “Sumimasen”

“Sumimasen” in Japanese means “sorry” or “excuse me.” Sometimes, depending on context, it can mean “thank you” (if someone is, say, kind to you or does you a favor).


If you ever come to Japan and you only learn one word, “Sumimasen” is it. It is so versatile. Some of the big lessons of Japan and living in this country is that Japanese will teach you patience. It will will also teach you to be humble. It will also teach you to say, “Sorry”… Well, specifically, “Sumimasen”.


In Japan the customer is “God!”


Foreigners who do not learn these things quickly don’t do well here. They don’t last. For nearly three decades I’ve seen foreigners come and go and the ones who go the fastest fail to learn the simple lesson of “Sumimasen”.


In a previous post I spoke about how, in Japan, the customer is god. That’s right. In this country, even when the customer is wrong, the customer is still the customer and is god.


If you are ever here working for a Japanese company or with the Japanese and there’s some sort of problem – even if it is not your fault – the first thing out of your mouth should always be “Sumimasen”.


Sumimasen and a sincere attitude and bowing of ones head shows that you know your place in society and that you respect people.


I’ve seen many cases where there was some sort of problem at work. I can’t remember exactly what those problems were or whose fault they were. It doesn’t matter. But when the foreign staff were summoned by the Japanese management or the Japanese client or customer, I told that foreigner, “No matter what, the first thing you do when you walk into that room is to bow your head and say, ‘Sumimasen’.” I’ve even pleaded with some foreign staff to do this. Most wouldn’t have it. They wouldn’t listen.


“I’m not going to apologize, Mike. I didn’t do anything wrong.”


“No one is saying you did anything wrong. You must must say ‘sumimasen’ to show that you are sorry for this regrettable situation.”


They wouldn’t do it. Fools. Why wouldn’t you say ‘sorry’? When, for example, you friend’s mom or dad passes away, you say ‘I’m sorry’ even though you had nothing to do with it, right? Why can’t you say ‘sorry’ in this case?


They wouldn’t do it. They had a attitude of superiority. They didn’t bow their heads.


They lost their jobs.


They thought they were God’s gift to the business world, but they got their butts out of a job. It happened every time.


Once again, in Japan, the customer is god. The person paying the money is lord. If that person who is paying the money – be they a customer or your boss – wants to complain or has a claim against you or your company, even if it isn’t your fault, you must do these things:


1) Say “Sumimasen” repeatedly.

2) Bow your head and repeat #1.

3) You better show a sincere attitude that you are listening and not just acting like you are listening.

4) This is an important one! No matter how upset the client, customer or your boss gets, no matter how much they shout or raise their voice, you had better damn well not talk back. Talking back to the person who is paying the money is a cardinal sin. Talking back is called “iikaeshi” and that is absolutely verboten! No matter how upset they get, you follow rule #2.


Recently, I was at a meeting where a customer got very hot under the collar and began to raise their voice. It was a difficult situation. It got even worse when the person who was the receiver of monies from this customer committed iikaeshi and talked back. That employee said, “Don’t shout at me!”


No! No! No! That only escalated the situation and made a situation whereby that employee had just put their neck out asking to get terminated.


Never! But never talk back to an angry customer in Japan. That is behavior that is not tolerated in this country. That kind of behavior is asking to get fired.


When the customer is mad and yelling, the proper reaction is to respond in a quiet voice, “Sumimasen! Sumimasen!” This response will diffuse the situation and then the customer must be allowed to blow off steam. A demur attitude and a repetition of ‘sumimasen’ (along with a ton of bowing and a humble and sincere attitude) will show professionalism and it will show that customer that here is a person who respects the customer and, in return, deserves to be respected.


Any other response besides the above shows the customer an amateurish and low level employee that is not deserving of higher pay nor a higher position. If that employee commits such a sin repeatedly, that employee only deserves a pink slip.


“Sumimasen” not only means, “Excuse me,” “I’m sorry” and “Thank you” it is also a word that works like just like magic.