Sorry I'm late: The Japanese attention to punctuality

Japanese people have a reputation for reliability when it comes to time, making them one of the most punctual people in the world. Making excuses is avoided, and they are humble and quick to admit they are wrong or late - so here's how you can do that too.

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Importance of punctuality in Japanese society

It is well known that Japanese is considered as one, if not the most punctual in the world. They have a reputation for being strict when it comes to time. They value what others would think and feel if they are late because they do not want to inconvenience others. 

An incident happened in 2018 where a Japanese train departed 25 seconds earlier than it was scheduled. One can assume that this is a fortunate event in other foreign countries, but in Japan it was a different story. 'Truly inexcusable,' as declared by the representative of the railway company concerned, it resulted in apologies and workers being trained as measures never to' let matters happen once more.

(※) Japan Today, Features, "Japanese train company issues official apology for 25-second early departure"

Japanese punctuality is not restricted to just trains but seen everywhere. From students arriving early to schools, people arriving to meetings 5 to 10 minutes earlier, or shops and restaurants opening exactly on time, being punctual is part of Japanese society and is practiced in the different aspects of their lives.

Interesting Fact

So you can see how the Japanese perceive punctuality. As such, you might see practices which you may not have witnessed elsewhere besides Japan. Railway operators hand out certificates when a train arrives late. This certificate can then be shown to your employer to prove that you were late because of the train delay. 

Japanese were not always necessarily punctual. As explained by academic Masashi Abe from Waseda Institute for Advanced Studies, there were no correct means to tell time throughout early periods. Japanese used incense clocks as a means of telling time. Mechanical watches were only introduced during the Meiji Restoration period (after the Edo period), but when mechanical watches were adopted, the Japanese gradually became accustomed to how to determine the accurate time - naturally developing the sense of punctuality they are known today. 

(※) Intercontinental Academia, News, "Japanese punctuality began in modern times"

Apologizing in Japan, basic situations and contexts

Nobody is perfect, and this can be said on rare occasions where the Japanese are late due to unforeseen or unavoidable events. But one cannot argue that he is excused for being late; therefore, it is necessary to accept the fault and apologize. 

If you are going to work and are well aware that you are running late, the first thing you need to do is contact your workplace. Whether you call your superior or message him, one should mention three important things -- your apology, your reason for being late, and what time you can arrive. On your arrival at work, apologize to your colleagues and boss for being late.

On occasions where you did not inform your workplace beforehand for being late, you should admit fault and apologize to everyone, especially to your boss. 

Ways of saying "Sorry, I'm late" in Japanese 

"I'm sorry," "I apologize," or "Forgive me" are some if not all of the ways one can apologize. In Japan, there are many ways to say you are sorry; moreover, it can vary depending on the situation, and the weight of your error. Check out some other ways in our article about how to apologize (in general) in Japanese

How to apologize for being late in Japanese

Apology when you're late already

  • The most basic is “遅れてすみません。(Okurete sumimasen)” - I’m sorry that I’m late.

  • You can say "すみません。遅くなりました。(Sumimasen, osoku narimashita)" which means "I'm sorry. I'm late." This can be said when you arrive late to meetings within your company or when you turn in a report/papers later than expected. 

  • Formal: You can also say "お待たせして申し訳ございません。Omataseshite moushiwake gozaimasen" which translates to "I am sorry to have kept you waiting." which can be used with clients, or when you take a while to answer a call on hold. This is especially important when your business relationship is on the line, as being late with clients whether intentional or not is seen as disrespectful.

  • Casual: With friends, you can say “遅れてごめん!(Okurete gomen!)” - Sorry I’m late!

Apology when you expect you're going to be late

  • "すみません。遅れます。(Sumimasen. Okuremasu.)" is said if you are going to be late. 

  • If you are sure about how many minutes you are going to be late, you could be specific and say "すみません。15分遅れます。(Sumimasen, juugo-fun okuremasu.)" which means "Sorry. I am going to be fifteen minutes late." 

  • Another common reason for being late is oversleeping, so one could say, "すみません。寝坊しました。すぐ行きます。(Sumimasen, nebou shimashita. Sugu ikimasu.)” meaning "Sorry, I have overslept. I will go immediately."

Apology when you think you can't make it on time

Sometimes, unexpected events happen at times when you are in a hurry; therefore, it may cause you to be late. 

  • If you may be late for about 5 minutes because of a train delay, you can say "電車が遅れています。5分遅れるかもしれません。(Densha ga okurete imasu. 5-fun okureru kamo shiremasen.)"

  • Another way you could say sorry if you may be late is "すみません。遅れる可能性があります。(Sumimasen, okureru kanousei ga arimasu.)” which means "Sorry, but there’s a possibility that I may be late."

As will be explained in the next section, replace sumimasen with moushiwakegozaimasen according to the severity of the situation as well as your relationship with the person.

Other Japanese phrases you can use to apologize and some Japanese etiquette on being late

Japanese apology explained

The Japanese have different degrees of apology, depending on the severity of the offense. The most regularly used word for apologizing is "sumimasen," but it does not only mean "sorry." It may be used in certain ways, like calling someone's attention (in this context, it can be defined as excuse me), or it can be used to express a feeling of gratitude.

If your actions were severe, and it may or have resulted in something bad, you should apologize politely and solemnly. "Moushiwake gozaimasen" is used as a polite, humble form of apology if you have done something very serious. It is usually said to your superiors or clients. "Moushiwake" means "no explanation can defend my doing and I apologize"; "gozaimasen" is a term used to elevate politeness.

Basic response for being late to reply

When doing business with a Japanese person, it is important to pay attention to time. If you have received emails from your employer or business partner in Japan, and you were not able to reply on the same day or the time he is expecting, you might want to consider apologizing as a sign of good gesture.

"返事が遅くなり、申し訳ありません。(Henji ga osoku nari, mōshiwakearimasen)" which translates to "I'm sorry for the late reply," is a great way of responding to the situation. It shows that you recognize your shortcomings, and you respect their time. 

Japanese etiquette on being late

You can say that the Japanese give value to what other people think, and that may be one reason why they give importance to time. Thus when you happen to be late in Japan, you must observe these etiquettes.

  • You should apologize for being late humbly and sincerely.

  • Making excuses would not do you any good. It is better to admit your mistake, no matter how small it is. 

  • Bowing is another practice by the Japanese when apologizing, especially in formal situations. In casual situations, bowing your head while putting your palms flat against each other is also appropriate. 

  • Japanese apologize for being late because it can be an inconvenience for the other party. In conditions wherein you are at the receiving end of an apology, smiling to show that you’re not upset is a nice gesture as well as assuring them that you’re not inconvenienced. 


It may be quite an experience if you ever find yourself being late in punctual Japan. It can become overwhelming, especially if you do not have any idea how the Japanese value punctuality. But we're all human and being late happens! We hope this article was helpful in showing not only the mindset of punctuality but how to apologize in the case you're late for any reason.

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