It is a well-known fact that being late is frowned upon in Japanese culture. Being late when you meet friends will not hurt your friendships badly as long as you apologize and don’t try to make up excuses. Actually, your Japanese friends might very well be the ones who are late. But in business culture, it’s a no-go, so you should make sure to be on time for your appointments with Japanese counterparts. However, trouble sometimes happens, and being late becomes unavoidable. Here is what to say in such situations.
What to Say When You Arrive Late
As stated earlier, even if you can explain why you are late, excuses usually will not earn you points with your Japanese counterpart. As a matter of fact, one of the ways to apologize in Japanese is moshiwake arimasen, which literally means “I have no excuse”. The most important is to apologize as sincerely as possible, before stating anything else.
Here are two ways to do so. The first one is polite, and the second one is very formal.
・すみません、遅くなりました。 Sumimasen, osokunarimashita. I’m sorry for being late.
・お待たせして申し訳ございません。 Omataseshite moshiwake gozaimasen. I am deeply sorry to have kept you waiting.
Announcing How Late You Will Be
If you notice you are going to be late or may be late, it is imperative to phone or message your Japanese counterpart to warn them in advance. In that case, first apologize, then announce how late you are likely to arrive.
Basic verbs to remember:
・遅れます (okuremasu): The polite form meaning “to be late”
・遅れそうです (okureso desu): The polite form meaning “to may be late”
・着きます (tsukimasu): The polite form meaning “to arrive”
Here are a few useful time expressions:
・五分 (gofun): Five minutes
・十分 (juppun): Ten minutes
・ニ十分 (nijuppun): Twenty minutes
・三十分 (sanjuppun): Thirty minutes
・一時間 (ichijikan): One hour
・少し (sukoshi): A little
・すぐに (sugu ni): In a moment, immediately
・後十分で (ato juppun de): In ten minutes
・すみません、十分遅れます。 Sumimasen, juppun okuremasu. Sorry, I will be 10 minutes late.
・すみません、少し遅れそうです。 Sumimasen, sukoshi okureso desu. Sorry, I may be a little late.
・すみません、後十分で着きます。 Sumimasen, ato juppun de tsukimasu. Sorry, I will arrive in 10 minutes.
・すみません、すぐに着きます。 Sumimasen, sugu ni tsukimasu. Sorry, I will arrive in a moment.
Explaining Why You Will Be Late
If you are warning your Japanese counterpart that you are going to be late, you may also include the reason why you are late in your sentence. On a cultural note, if your train is very late, you can receive an official paper from the clerk officers at your arrival station in order to prove to your employer your being late was not your fault.
Here are some common reasons for being late:
・電車が遅れて・・・ Densha ga okurete… The train is/was late and…
・渋滞していて・・・ Juutai shiteite… There is/was a traffic jam…
・迷ってしまって・・・ Mayotte shimatte… I got lost…
(This one is a bit tricky though, because you are supposed to come in advance enough to prevent this kind of thing from happening.)
Here are some reasons you may tell your Japanese colleagues (but not your customers!):
・会議が長引いて・・・ Kaigi ga nagabiite… The meeting did not end on time…
・寝坊してしまって・・・ Nebo shite shimatte… I overslept…
・すみません、電車が遅れて、ニ十分遅れます。 Sumimasen, densha ga okurete, nijuppun okuremasu. Sorry, my train was late so I will be 20 minutes late.
・すみません、渋滞していて十分遅れそうです。 Sumimasen, juutai shiteite juppun okureso desu. Sorry, there is a traffic jam and I may be 10 minutes late.
・すみません、会議が長引いて少し遅れます。 Sumimasen, kaigi ga nagabiite sukoshi okuremasu. Sorry, the meeting did not finish on time and I will be a little late.
Even if being late is not well perceived in Japanese culture, if this happens to you, don’t panic! Sincere apologies and the effort of using the correct Japanese expressions applying the tools above will surely help you smooth over any discomfort.
（Header photo credit: Pakutaso）