Japanese people say “Sumimasen” very often in many situations. Normally you can translate it into “I’m sorry.” in Japanese, but it has different meanings depending on situations. I will introduce when you can say it and what meaning it has then.
1. When you apologize to someone
Foreign people who learn Japanese know you can say it when you apologize to someone. You can say it to someone whom you don’t know, elderly people or your bosses in both the workplace and private when you apologize to them politely. I say and hear it really often in such a situation in Japan. I will introduce an example.
Ex.) In a train
A : Please don’t sit down on the floor in the train./「電車の中で床に座らないでください。」
B: I’m sorry./「すみません。」
2. When you talk to someone
You can also use it when you talk to someone whom you don’t know, elderly people or your bosses in both the workplace and private. This is a polite expression, so you don’t give people an impolite impression even if you say it to them. I say and hear it such a situation in Japan. I will introduce an example.
A : Excuse me. Could you tell me the way to Tokyo station ?/「すみません。東京駅への行き方を教えて頂けませんか?」
B : Yes, please go straight along this street and turn right at the first corner./「はい、この道をまっすぐ行って最初の角を右に曲がってください。」
3. When you appreciate someone
Japanese say it also when they appreciate someone although you can’t believe that. We often say “Sumimasen Arigatogozaimasu”/「すみません、ありがとうございます。」 in this case. You can tell people your appreciation very politely and they don’t feel it impolite. You can often say them to someone whom you don’t know very well, elderly people or your bosses. If you say it in this situation Japanese people in Japan, they would be surprised and glad. I often say and hear them in such a situation in Japan and I will introduce an example.
A : How long can I go to Sensoji ?/「浅草寺へ行くのにどのくらいかかりますか？」
B : It takes a few minutes from Asakusa subway station on your foot./「地下鉄浅草駅から徒歩で2-3分かかります。」
A : Thank you !/「すみません、ありがとうございます。」
4. When you request to someone
You can say it also when you request something to someone whom you don’t know, elderly people or your bosses. This is also a very polite expression and you can give people a polite impression if you say it in such a situation. I also use and hear it in such a situation in Japan. I will introduce an example.
Ex.) At a restaurant
A : Could you take the dishes ?/「すみません、皿をさげて頂けませんか？」
B : Yes, sure./「はい、かしこまりました。」
You can say “Sumimasen” when you apologize, talk to someone, appreciate or request. These are natural and polite expressions.