“Sumimasen” is one of the first phrases you may have learned in Japanese. But did you know there are 3 meanings associated to this phrase?
2) Excuse me.
3) Thank you.
Most likely, you have learned the first definition as it is often described in various textbooks for Japanese.
However, once you go out and see how native Japanese people use this phrase, you will soon notice they are using it when they want to get attention in a restaurant or in some stores.
The final definition, “thank you”, is also used to show your appreciation through saying that you have caused the other person to go out of their way to help you. So you are “sorry” that you made the person do whatever he/she did for you, but “thank you” for that.
In other words, in Japanese culture, “thank you” and “sorry” are opposite sides of the same coin. You may have noticed some Japanese learners of English saying “sorry” which made you say “don’t be” and it should’ve been simply “thank you”.
If you are not accustomed to saying “sorry” to mean “thank you”, it will be perfectly okay to say straight “aligato” for “thank you”. But it won’t hurt to observe how Japanese use “sumimasen” as “thank you” in order to deepen your understanding of Japanese culture.
Learning a language is learning its culture.
– C2Gi Immersion Center