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The Fascinating Language of the JLPT N2

Making the jump from JLPT N3 to JLPT N2 can seem like a huge task. GaijinPot presents a guide to some of the tricky and intriguing points that make this test so challenging.

By 4 min read 7

Whereas the previous JLPT tests seemed to have essential words and phrases in them, JLPT N2 can seem to be intentionally obscure. After all, do we really need to know all those words for different types of writer (記者,小説家,作家,筆者,著者,文学者) or different types of cooling down (冷える,凍える,冷める,冷やす)? Who decided that 民 would be considered JLPT N2 kanji, but its component radical 氏 be JLPT N1?

The easy just got hard.

At JLPT N2 suddenly everything we thought we knew about kanji goes out the window and the ones we thought we’d mastered turn out to have been hiding some extra meanings.

One of the first kanji most learners study is the かたり, but this over-familiar kanji becomes 語るかたる・to tell at JLPT N2. Our old friend 行くいく likewise gains some Chinese readings such as in 行列ぎょうれつ・a procession. Even さつ gains a new reading in the word 値札ねふだ・a price tag.

Grammar is no different, the humble とか now gains a new meaning in sentences like 中止だとかちゅうしだとか where it means ‘heard ~ is cancelled’. Even simple ideas like 切るきる can take on an additional meaning such as in 読み切った本よみきったほん・a completely read book.

Some words even combine unusual kanji and grammar. 後 becomes のち (Its meaning is similar to ほど). Similarly, 折(おり)には is a form esteemed people use that has a meaning similar to とき. Even the kanji for husband can appear in strange places such as in 工夫 (A scheme).

Gaining an Asian perspective.

Knowing about Asian culture is important for every level of JLPT, but JLPT N2 is when you start learning some of the unique ways Japan and its neighbors view the world. I remember being stuck on 同窓会どうそうかい (An alumni association) and 同窓どうそう (The same school) for a long time because the second kanji in both words was ‘window’. Saying that we both went to the ‘same window’ seems a strange way to talk about your school life!

A Chinese friend finally helped me out by telling me that in ancient Chinese culture the students would all live in a complex that usually had a giant window for light. As a result the Chinese associated the window kanji with study. Interestingly, it has become a rare idea in modern Chinese, but is still common in Japanese.

This unique perspective can also be found in fascinating ideas like 書き味かきみ (the performance of a pen) or 切れ味がいいはさみきれあじがいいはさみ (the good performance of scissors). The 味 in both these kanji means ‘the way something performs’ rather than ‘taste’.

Those interesting answers

While some answers have a cultural explanation, others are simply strange because of a quirk of the language. Test writers seem to like using かかわる (be concerned with~) because of its unusual uses. One particularly tricky one is 命にかかわる病気いのちにかかわるびょうき which is a disease that is threatens one’s life.

One of my favorite weird answers which came up in practice tests was the word 食べっぷり. It means a way of eating, usually implying that someone enjoys their food. A recent article about 食べっぷりのいい女子 (Women who eat heartily) illustrates how interesting these ideas can be.

It’s a verb, honest!

A tricky challenge in some cases is actually spotting where the verb is in some sentences. Some verbs, such as けなす (To ridicule/ put ~ down), are written in hiragana so are easily mistaken for grammar points! While JLPT N2 doesn’t set out to intentionally deceive its takers, the examiners are fond of putting these hiragana verbs in the answers.

Anytime the test taker sees 自転車じてんしゃ in a question, always look for the verb こぐ (To peddle) as one of the answers. While this verb does have kanji, it is usually written in hiragana and often doesn’t look like a verb. To make things confusing, こぐ can also mean ‘to row (a small boat)’, so be careful.

Schrodinger’s grammar.

If Schrodinger had ever studied Japanese, he would be excited to discover the word 有無うむ which is used whenever the presence or absence of something is unknown. This word is often used to describe taking a medical test where the presence or absence of the thing being tested hasn’t been established yet.

Many contradictory ideas can be put together to make these kinds of words. Even ideas as opposed as winning (勝つかつ) and losing (負けるまける) can be joined to make 勝負しょうぶ which covers the possibilities of either victory or defeat happening. 彼は空手では君といい勝負だかれはからてではきみといいしょうぶだ・He’s a good match for you in karate and マラソンの勝負の結果は気にしなくていいよマラソンのしょうぶのけっかはきにしなくていいよ・You should be unconcerned about either winning or losing the marathon.

These are the points that interested me when I was studying for JLPT N2. Of course, studying by yourself is no fun, so I throw the question over to the GaijinPot readers. Are any of you studying for this test? What are some of the confusing or interesting points that you came across that you think others should know about?

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  • Tommaso Tommasi says:

    I started studying 2 days ago with the New Kanzen Master books series. I would like to ask if somebody has some advices for how many things it is good and efficient to learn per day (f.e., 10 grammar patterns, 2 units of vocabulary and 3 reading comprehensions)

  • NOEL HUNT says:

    Corrigendum: my earlier analysis of とか is only useful for trying to understand its meaning. I don’t think it originates from such a reduction; it is simpler than that.

    と introduces an overt (or covert) quotation: 田中という人, ‘a person he/she calls Tanaka’, ‘a person I/we/you/they call Tanaka’, i.e., ‘a person called Tanaka’.

    か adds an element of indeterminacy: 田中とかいう人, ‘a person called Tanaka or something’.

    Thus とか can be glossed as ‘or something’, ‘roughly’, ‘to the effect that’ in its various uses.

  • NOEL HUNT says:

    とか is a reduction of と[いう(もの/ひと/こと)]か—there is an implied quotation inherent in it (‘something called such and such’, ‘a person who says such and such’), so it’s use at the end of a sentence to mean ‘something to the effect that/I have heard that/they say that/there is a report that’ etc. is unremarkable, and is more or less equivalent to ‘そうです’ e.g., 行くそうです, ‘I hear that he/she/you/they will go’, ‘I believe he/she/you/they will go’ etc.

    As for 切る, well it is just one of many verbs that is added to the stem of another verb to add extra meaning, in this case ‘to do thoroughly’, hence ‘read thoroughly/completely’. You will find these extra meanings in the dictionary. Samuel Martin in his reference grammar has a list of 35 or so. For example, compare, 干す,ほす, ‘to dry’; 飲み干す ‘drink till the glass/bottle is dry’, ‘drink completely’, ‘drain’.

    And as to the comment that のち is similar to ほど​, this is simply wrong. They are completely different. のち is an elegant/literary reading of 後 but ほど means ‘extent’, nothing to do with ‘after’. Perhaps you are confused by the word のちほど which is an elegant way of saying あとで.

    The last word on syntax and grammar is Samuel Martin, A Reference Grammar of Japanese. It should be consulted on points of grammar or syntax.

  • Matthew Coslett says:

    Thanks for all the comments guys. I know that all the writers appreciate the fact that people are reading and commenting on our stuff.

    I think maybe the meaning of article has been misunderstood. It is not intended to be a list of exceptionally tricky grammar, kanji and vocabulary (I will hopefully write one of those at some point though :D). Rather it is supposed to be more of my account of some of the things that fascinated me as I moved from JLPT3 to JLPT2.

    Anyway thanks for all the feedback and good luck on the JLPT.

  • “After all, do we really need to know all those words for different types of writer…?”

    I don’t see anything uncommon about these words. If you read news or online sites like AllAbout, ASCII.jp, etc., you’ll see all of these words at some point or another. I think the real split comes in at JLPT1 level, where you learn a lot of terms and (especially) grammar that just aren’t commonly used except in extremely formal writing. Like MrGoodNews said, if you’re reading extensively and watching native shows (very doable at N2 level), none of the JLPT2 kanji or grammar should come as a shock.

    That said, 2 is a watermark. Once you have JLPT2, you can at least figure out how to decipher a lot of native content, if not understand it outright. The amount of JLPT1 grammar you need on a daily basis is pretty small (ならのでは, と思いきや、etc.); it’s largely a matter of filling in the missing bits and amassing vocab.

  • MrGoodNews says:

    is a good article specially for beginners.I am guessing the writer of
    this article is mostly reading Text books. I suggest all of you who are
    studying japanese, to read something else like Japanese novel or
    newspaper, or just watch the TV.I know its
    hard but to avoid surprises that are mentioned in this article you have
    to try. If you follow japaneses news and TV/anime these kanji are hard to missThe kanji mentioned in this article is regularly used in
    speech. Also, unless you need JLPT certificate for applying job or
    something I recommend you guys to skip it and build your skills.Take
    your time.

    • Matthew Coslett says:

      Thanks for the comment Mr. Goodnews.

      I would definitely agree with all of this. At the time I focused on reading more than listening, so my notes probably reflect this (Typical writer type, I’m afraid). I was also (for good or bad) studying to pass the test rather than studying practically.

      If I could redo my studying, I would probably mix up the two as both are important especially now I am studying the more advanced stuff.



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