This page is devoted to the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam or JLPT (日本語能力試験). It was originally inspired by Robert’s excellent JLPT level 3 Roundup page, I wanted to chronicle my efforts to pass the JLPT and what works for me, and what doesn’t. Also, I wanted to share more general advice for mastering Japanese language, which is reputed to be one of the most difficult in the world, and to help others prepare for the JLPT. For 2010, I decided to take the N3 rather than jumping up to the N2, due to other unrelated projects and overall lack of time to prepare. In 2011 though, I took the N2 exam and passed. I’m undecided if I want to try for the N1 exam someday because the commitment is much longer.
This page is periodically updated as I refine learning methods, or find things I did wrong previously. Feel free to check back every few months.
New to Japanese Language?
If you’re new, or relatively new to studying Japanese language, I would strongly, strongly recommend taking Tae Kim’s online Japanese-language course. Even if you learned Japanese previously, chances are you might have learned some things wrong, and it’s always good to review the basics, since the basic grammar is (in Tae Kim’s words), very frequently used, and often the hardest to grasp. This has been my experience as a student of Japanese language for years. I developed a lot of bad habits and assumptions I started to correct only recently.
Even if you think you’re familiar with basic Japanese, I highly recommend reviewing it anyway because we can all use some improvement.
I mention this because if you plan to take the JLPT exams, you should have a strong foundation in the basics anyway. It will make your exam experience a lot more positive, and give you strong footing as you move into more advanced Japanese.
Understanding the JLPT
The JLPT exam is one of a few tests of Japanese-language proficiency, but it is arguably the most widely-used and most well-known. Through 2009, the test had 4 levels, with level 4 covering only basic greetings, vocabulary and such, and level 1 being very advanced. Many jobs in Japan require at least JLPT N2 proficiency. I know that for more exciting jobs, a JLPT N1 certification is often required.
The test still has five requisite skills candidates must demonstrate proficiency in:
- Kanji (Chinese characters)
- Reading comprehension
The test is multiple choice, and no writing or speaking. For those interested in testing their ability to read/write kanji, consider the Kanken proficiency test instead. If you’re looking to improve your conversational skills, the JLPT will only help a little. There are other, more effective ways to improve conversational skills. In any case, to make progress in Japanese language studies, you really need constant exposure to Japanese media (and/or people) and then you can review what you learn through JLPT materials or other excellent books. In the long-run this is the best course. If you live outside of Japan, you have to be a little creative, but this page will help you find resources. Just remember: exposure, exposure, EXPOSURE!
An explanation of scoring, also provided by the JLPT foundation, can be found here.
Should I take the JLPT?
That depends. The JLPT is first and foremost an entrance exam for students of Japanese language who want to apply to college there. It is often used for job applications in Japan as well (N2 and above typically). The focus of the JLPT is literacy, not conversational skills. Speaking from experience, I have found that the JLPT helps me understand Japanese grammar and reading, but after the N4 or N3, it didn’t help me much with conversation because the words and grammar became too advanced for daily conversation. There are some who argue that the JLPT is a complete waste of time in learning Japanese.
So, you have to decide what your priorities are. If you want to get good at conversation Japanese, the JLPT is helpful at the lower levels (especially the N4 and N3), but you should learn your Japanese from resources like Tae Kim’s blog, and/or AJATT.
On the other hand, if you are interested in studying/working in Japan, and you have other marketable workplace skills, then the JLPT may be worth studying all the way up to the advanced levels (N2 and N1), but only if you supplement it with extensive practical exposure.
Which JLPT level is right for me?
That’s a good question. Many people come to Japanese with various backgrounds, and it’s hard to “step into the stream” at first, since you are not sure what your level is. The JLPT foundation has a new set of sample tests for each N level. They’re very short sample test, but provide a good overview of what that level looks like. Try taking a few levels and see which one is challenging, but not too hard, and that is probably the level you should study for.
For example, I passed the old JLPT3 (now N4) last year, and wanted to see if I was ready for the N2 (old JLPT2), so I took a sample test and realized how much harder the N2 test is. If I had the time to cram, I don’t believe I could absorb and practice that much material for the N2 in one year, so as mentioned above, I opted for the N3 instead in 2010, which based on the sample tests, seemed more appropriate anyway. After a year of study, I passed the N3. In 2011, I took the sample tests again and found the N2 still a significant challenge, but more manageable now, so I could feel some sense of progress between 2010 and 2011, enough to build upon.
Personally, I feel you should challenge yourself, so if you pick a level that’s easy for you, you will not really accomplish anything (unless the test will be held soon). On the other hand, if you pick a level too far above, you can get discouraged and give up if you are impatient for results. The middle ground seems right: pick a level that’s a stretch above your skill level. It gives you a challenge to work toward. Nothing worthwhile in life comes easy.
More thoughts here too, about studying Japanese language long-term, relevant for higher-level JLPT students.
How long do I have to prepare?
This depends on the level of the test of course. Easier levels require less time, while higher levels can take even years to prepare for, because there’s so much material to learn. I can’t stress this enough: memorizing something isn’t enough. This is a foreign language, not mathematics. Languages require huge amounts of practice for multiple facets, so that the words and grammar become internalized, and almost as automatic as your native language. Listening, especially, requires lots of time to practice. If you see or hear a certain word in Japanese a few times, you may get familiar with it, but if you see it 200 times, it becomes rote. Grammar also requires a lot of practice to construct sentences correctly, determine what particle is appropriate and so on.
Since for most people the test is only offered in December, it’s good to start early in January, as I do every year. If it is a lower-level test, you can master the material in a few months, and practice during the rest of the time. The higher levels of course require a lot more time to absorb all the material, then practice to proficiency. Plan to spend a few years studying possibly, especially for the N1.
If you’re looking for other sample tests, you can also try using the sample JLPT tests from JapanesePod101.com. They also have other JLPT resources, but I haven’t checked this in a while, so I can’t comment on it.
Anyone whose serious about the JLPT and learning Japanese should consider investing in test and study materials. Nothing worthwhile in life comes free. This is especially difficult for people who live in countries where JLPT resources are few, or too expensive, but the JLPT is a serious undertaking and not something done casually. If you intend to live/work in Japan, you simply need to invest in the right tools and resources properly.
There are some books I recommend for Japanese-language students in general, regardless of their level:
- All About Japanese Particles by Kodansha Press. Particles are a very important part of Japanese language, and this book is a solid overview.
- Basic Connections: Making your Japanese Flow by Kodansha Press. A very useful book overall on Japanese grammar, ideal for N4 to N2.
- The Handbook of Japanese Verbs by Kodansha Press. A good review of Japanese verbs, how to conjugate, and easy to remember tricks too. Even though it may be a little advanced, I recommend for at least N4, which already covers most verb forms.
- The Handbook of Japanese Adjectives and Adverbs by Kodansha Press. This book covers in great detail Adjectives and Adverbs, conjugation, and (for adverbs) the various nuances they have.
The previous list contains books not directly focused on the JLPT, but beyond N4, you really have to start investing time to learn the whole language, not just select material for the JLPT. The higher-level tests become so broad, you will benefit a lot from general, Japanese-language studies.
First and foremost, take the official sample tests first, so you can gauge the proper level for yourself.
Once that’s done, the key to preparing for the JLPT exam is practice, practice, practice. Without practice tests, you cannot see where you are weak, and where you are making frequent mistakes. A surprising number of resources are available if you know where to look.
Because of the change to the JLPT, the old practice tests sold at various websites no longer are useful. I found the exams have different structure and different focus, so if you spend too much time with old practice exams, you will be surprised by the format of the new exams. So, instead, I recommend you try to get practice tests for the new exams only, and do not buy the old exams, unless they come after the “change”.
At this time, I can’t recommend any practice exams apart from the “Kanzen Master” series. These exams are artificially difficult, but if you can practice and score well on these exams, you can be sure to score well on the real JLPT.
As I posted before, listening is one of the hardest aspects of learning a language, and can make the difference on the JLPT. This is also the hardest skill to cultivate when preparing for the JLPT, but really pays off in the long-run because it’s so practical. The previous post, linked above, contains some resources for online web casts, daily streaming media and so on. Dynamic content is the best way to get used to the many kinds of conversations you can face in Japan, as well as on the JLPT. A good example is Japanese language podcasts (more info here), if you can access those. Or, if nothing else, try listening to radio broadcasts on the Internet through NHK.
The JLPT listening questions are intended to be tricky, with lots of sidetracks, red-herrings and other useless information, so you need to learn how to relax when listening and absorb the whole sentence, rather than fixating on the first thing you understand. It’s a habit that must be overcome when learning a language, and requires a lot of time for your mind to adjust to the different sounds and words. If you practice enough, you will find the listening sections surprisingly easy because you just get used to hearing it so much! I’ve confirmed this in my experience with the JLPT 3 (old) and new JLPT N3.
For both, I was surprised by how easy some questions were, because I spent so much time getting used to how Japanese sounds. Having a Japanese spouse helps, but this is a skill anyone can acquire if you’re patient, and spend a little time each day. You cannot cram for listening, it just takes consistency and practice. This is a skill you probably should start early, and pace yourself for.
Vocabulary is a tricky subject, especially now that the JLPT is moving away from set lists people can memorize and cram for, but it’s also one of the fundamental building blocks of a language. Having passed the N4 level comfortably, I decided to branch out into real Japanese reading materials like Manga and such. The White Rabbit Press’s Graded Reader Series became too easy by this point (though quite fun to read and helped me pass the N4), so it was only natural.
Also, my wife pointed out that my memorization of vocabulary wasn’t helping because I didn’t understand the right context and usage, so reading real Japanese manga would address this. There are certain tricks to doing this, but once you get used to not knowing all the words, you can rapidly develop your vocabulary by making a note of new words, using a good online dictionary like jisho.org, and storing the information into Anki for practice later. It’s a kind of cycle that quickly proves useful, I believe, and is recommended by AJATT as well.
With the new JLPT, there are no more word-lists to study, so instead, you have to become used to reading at a certain level. Speaking from experience, there’s still a chance you’ll encounter words you didn’t know before, but the more you practice reading and reviewing new words you encounter, the less often you’ll encounter unknown words. In fact, if you encounter unknown words, you might be able to guess their meaning because of similar words you’ve encountered before.
Lastly, you can look for help at JapanesePod101.com, which is not focused on the JLPT explicitly, but contains a lot of helpful resources for learning the language, and covers many of the same grammar points over the course of its lessons. The overlap, plus extra listening brings things together well, and I spent many hours in the past listening to their lessons before graduating to actual Podcasts in Japanese.
A lot of problems in communication with Japanese is knowing what people are saying (the words), and how to express yourself clearly and concisely, so vocabulary studies really help, but also learning the proper usage and context, which are also tested in the exam as well!
As far as what order to practice, here’s my approach so far:
- Start right away with kanji and vocabulary. Get the material memorized pretty well, otherwise you will struggle with more difficult sections like listening, grammar and reading comprehension.
- As the same time, start finding a way to practice listening consistently and often. Listening in general is the hardest skill to learn for a language, so you need all the time you can get. A decent score in the listening section will make all the difference, and will have very practical applications in communicating with Japanese people. It’s time well spent!
- Once you the vocabulary and kanji out of the way (takes at least a few months), start on grammar. Grammar may not take long to learn, but it does take a long time to practice, and also has practical benefits in communication, and in the listening section too.
- As you get familiar with kanji, vocabulary and grammar, now you should start taking practice tests. Start with mock tests first if you have them, then move onto the real tests. The mock tests published can be slightly harder than the real test, but that’s preferable as it will discipline you well ahead of the real test.
- Once done, focus on the real tests, and spend a lot of time now going over your weak areas. Like most people, listening is probably your hardest subject still, so do everything you can to immerse yourself. If you have access to the older tests, take those too and learn how the flow of the test goes.
The time-scale here will vary depending on which test you take, but the process is essentially the same. So, adjust the plan above with the time-scale appropriate for you, and get started.
The debate about how relevant the JLPT is is nothing new to the Internet, but for me, as a Japanophile and student of the language, I found it a very motivating benchmark for my own studies. I know from first-hand experience that studying for the JLPT and practicing the material a lot helped my real-life experiences in Japan, so it’s not time wasted if you really do want to learn the language.
For me, it’s both a hobby and fun challenge. I hope you will enjoy it was much as I have. Good luck!