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Testing Times: Preparing For The JLPT Exam

The final step in your Japanese language journey is mastering the dreaded JLPT 1.

By 5 min read 33

I have been in Japan for a total of more than six years and I would like to think that in that time I’ve managed to pick up, at least a little bit of the language in my time here. But this December, for the first time, I will find out just how good my Japanese is.

I will take the famous; some would say infamous, Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

The JLPT has been around since 1984 and originally comprised four levels.

The level 4 exam was a basic introduction to Japanese. Candidates are expected to learn around 120 kanji, their various readings and pronunciations, as well as around 800 words of Japanese and the basic rudiments of Japanese grammar. Someone who passed the level 4 exam would have a level of written Japanese roughly equivalent to a grade 2 or 3 elementary school student.

The level 3 exam was considerably more advanced than the level 4. At this level students were expected to know around 300 kanji and 1500 words.

Level 2 represented an even greater jump up in requirements. At this level the requirement surges to 1000 kanji and 6000 words. People who attain level 2 are largely considered to have conversational Japanese ability and can say so on their resume.

Level 1 is, was as you would expect, the highest level. Students who passed this level would have to master 3000 kanji and more than 10,000 words.

Many test candidates complained that the gulf in requirement between the older level 3 and level 2 exams was simply too great and many successful level 3 candidates would often become disheartened and frustrated when they could not pass level 2.

Recognizing this, the test was given an overhaul in 2010, when new standards were set for the exams and a fifth exam level was added. The current system now looks like this:

  • N5 replaces the old level 4 exam.
  • N4 is the equivalent of the old level 3 exam.
  • N3 is a new exam. Its difficulty level is pitched halfway between the old level 3 and 2 exam.
  • N2 is pretty much the same as the old level 2 exam.
  • N1 is the new pinnacle of Japanese examinations.

Although no official clarification has been forthcoming from the organizers, many experts and test takers have claimed that the new N1 is slightly more difficult than the old level 1 exam. This remains a point of contention however.

From my own point of view, I will be taking level 5, since I am a JLPT virgin. Like a lot of foreigners in Japan, I have picked up a lot of phrases words and mannerisms from my Japanese friends and colleagues in my time here, but I have never seriously or formally studied the language until now. One of the major downsides of the JLPT is the fact that it has no speaking segment.

N5 to N3 have 3 sections: Kanji and vocabulary, grammar and reading, and listening.

N2 and N1 only have 2 sections: Listening and the vocabulary/grammar/reading sections of the previous exams are all merged into one section.

How does one pass the JLPT?

That’s a very complicated question. In short the pass mark is around 60% for N5-N2 and 70% for N1. However, in order to obtain the certificate, the candidate must pass every individual section, and sections cannot be retaken individually later.

Taking the exam is one thing, but registering for the exam can also be a little tricky for a first timer.

The the first to start is at the JLPT website, please go to the website www.jlpt.jp. From here, you will be able to check the requirements for each level, as well as do some sample questions so see which level is best suited to you. Once you know the level you want to take, you can submit an application. The application form can be completed online or printed off and submitted by post. Application packs are also available from various bookstores around Japan.

Please bear in mind that the deadline for applications is usually around 2 and a half months before the test date. Tests are held in December and July every year for those in Japan. In some other countries it is only once per year so please check with the organizers in your own country if you live outside Japan. Information on exam centres around the world can be found on the website. For those of us already in Japan, there are test centres in each region. Its important that you find out which centre is closest to you before you apply as you need to state the test centre location on your application form.

Once you’ve completed the application form, you’ll then have to submit it along with your fee of 5,500 yen. This can be paid by credit card, bank transfer, or, if you’re feeling adventurous with your Japanese, at one of those ticketting machines you will find in your local convenience store. Please note that you can only take one exam level per sitting. So if like me your Japanese level sits somewhere between two of the test levels you have a choice to make. Personally, I recommend taking the lower of the two levels, as failing the exam could affect your confidence in taking further exams in the future.

What advice would I give to test takers?

Firstly, I would say you need to approach this exam seriously. Do not think that you can cram the exam for a couple of weeks before you take the test. This is not high school history, languages exams, especially ones that use a non-roman script like Japanese are very complex and need an extended period of time and study to prepare for.

I would really recommend taking some Japanese classes to help you prepare. These classes are vital to learn things such as grammar, appropriate usage, verb forms and so on. These are things you simply cannot learn having a few beers down the local izakaya with your Japanese friends.

If you can’t afford to go to a Japanese language school, don’t worry as all around Japan, many ward offices and local community centres offer Japanese classes taught by volunteers. These classes are very cheap, or sometimes even free to residents of that particular ward. Be sure to go and check out your local ward office and see what’s available.

Japanese is not easy, but with a bit of hard work and lots of determination, we can do it. If anyone has any questions about preparing for the JLPT or learning Japanese in general please be sure to leave a comment and I’ll do my best to offer any advice I can.

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  • Damien Anderson says:

    I decided to prepare the for the N2 test again and found this article.
    I took the test in 2009 and 2010. 2010 was the year that the test changed format. It really threw me off beacause I thought the test was considerably harder than the old format (the grammar looked totally foreign to me), however, the cut off is lower in the new format (I think before it was 60%, now it is 50%). The first time I failed by about 5%. Fair enough, back to the books. Then the 2nd time I failed by 1 fricken point (89/180). That really hurt. After that I kind of forgot about the test. I think I can pass if I took it now but I want to be really prepared for it. 3rd time is a charm :D?

  • Dominique Daneau-Pelletier says:

    Thanks a lot for the great advice! I’m especially interested in “Remembering the kanji”. I tried to pass N2 with exercises and the usual flash cards , and although my vocabulary was good , I just couldn’t remember the kanji! However I’ve always been interested in etymology, so I bet this method would work for me.
    Thanks and cheers! 🙂

  • Sammie Walschaerts says:

    I feel like university students and up should be able to pass N1 quite comfortably. Anyone who takes their studies a little bit seriously at least.

  • Carlo LESTANI says:

    Two years ago I’ve passed N2, after three attempts. I’ve attended a specialized school in Tokyo, but I’ve studied AT LEAST eight hours a day.
    Now I’m working in Japan (Kyushu area), but if I will not pass the N1 I’ll loose my visa. I’ve started five months ago to study hard, doing dozens of MOGI SHIKEN and reading every day.
    I’ve three months yet to complete my preparation, but I feel very stressed. Even if I attend an online course (in this city there’s no schools for workers) I find big difficulties to keep in mind everything. It’s eleven years I’m studying this language, after one year I could understand almost everything from TV and move in Japan by myself, but the exam requires another state of mind.

  • Samantha Cosby says:

    You really don’t need to bother to take the JLPT unless you’re taking N1 or N2. Depending on what grammar/kanji you are familiar with it’s pretty easy to self assess what level you would fall into and have succes in if you were to take the test. Otherwise it’s 5000 yen for something you could’ve figured out yourself. For jobs, companies are really only interested in your Japanese ability if you hold N1 or N2 certification (more often it has to be N1). Below that, your Japanese will not be functional in a business setting. Save yourself some stress and money. That being said, don’t give up on studying Japanese. Just because you don’t have JLPT certification does not mean your language ability is not valuable. Study and improve for your own personal pleasure and achievement, or for whatever joy or purpose it gives you. After you’ve studied a while and you really want to take the test, take N1 or N2 because those are the only levels where the certifications themselves actually have value.

  • Angelina Cortés says:

    I’m taking the test this July. I’m studying in Japan right now and I applied for N4. But I’m nervous because one of my teachers told me that my class was intended to learn N5 abilities and N4 was a goal for December. But, I already took N4 3 years ago (I don’t know my results) and want to try it again.

  • Kichijen says:

    What I think many people don’t realise is HOW MUCH people who pass study- I spoke to a friend who went from moving to Japan with zero Japanese to passing N3 in 2 years 3 months, she studies at least 20 hours a week on top of her full time job. I recommend you keep track of your study hours- it helps you to see when your focus is slipping and to really be honest with yourself about the rate at which you expect to progress.

    There are a ton of jlpt resources on the nihongogogo tumblr, tanos.co.uk, jlptdekiru.blogspot and jlptbootcamp are all really useful too. I recommend the Nihongo Challenge books for N5 and N4, if you’re a complete beginner Genki I and II are good and will see you from start to about N4 level. Online I recommend memrise.com (free) and iknow (not free but helps far more with reading and context) for vocabulary and kanji. I did Remembering the Kanji in 3 months last year.

    For dictionaries I recommend jisho.org and imiwa for IOS (both free, both comprehensive and reliable). There is no need for lower level learners to get an expensive electronic dictionary if you have a smart phone IMO, though everyone is different. I think I’d rather hold off till I really needed one because they cost so much.

    For people doing N4 or N5 who need more in-depth grammar explanations the book ‘Do It yourself Beginner-level Japanese Grammar Review English Edition’ was really useful for me.

    I too can attest to putting in about 20 hours a week on average for 3 months to get up to N4 level from N5 too. I’m fully expecting to have to study 3 hours a day, every day between January and July if I am to pass N3 this summer (this would bring me up to about 900hours total active study time in classes and at home).

    There are rough guides of hours studied on JLPT bootcamp. Personally, I can say I’ve studied about 500 hours and have lived in Japan for many years (not consecutively and some years not studying at all), after 300 hours active Japanese study. I got 100% on the N4 listening as a result of a huge amount of passive listening practise through living here- which backs up Bernie Low’s point about the listening- it’s an easy place to pick up marks, especially if you live in Japan and have had a lot of listening/speed training through daily life experiences.

    What do you think? How much did you study to get through each level? I’d be really interested to know. Thanks for reading 🙂

  • HengQing Goh says:

    Is there any website on all of the N5 kanji around? thanks ~^o^~

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    Thanks Steve, I am always happy when my work is appreciated.

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    Some great advice and positive words there Bjorn. Thanks for sharing.

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    Well, im happy to say that i think Ive comfortably passed N5. Next up is the N4 next summer. How did the rest of you get on?

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    David, there are a variety of books available on Amazon and other such websites covering the N4. I also recommend trying the practice questions on the JLPT website. Good luck 🙂

  • Anne says:

    Hi, where can I find this Kanji chart in the picture?

  • 波風 マダラ says:

    I’m taking the N1 this year and have passed N4, N3 and N2 over the past 3 years. I would recommend the book I used which was incredibly helpful :パターン別:徹底ドリル日本語能力試験N2. I bought the N3,N2 and N1 versions of this particular series as it’s really good.
    I recommend watching a lot of unsubbed TV shows/anime and/or reading manga, articles in Japanese etc. The reading part is especially tricky and requires fast reading/comprehension. Also, hitorigoto is very helpful! You’ll keep reminding yourself of the words that you know so that they’re always present in your mind, that way you will save time trying to remember what a particular word means while you’re in the exam. You don’t want to waste your time on that >_<.
    Good luck!

  • Manuel says:

    Since I am taking N2 on December for the second time (I didn’t pass the Summer examination for only 2 damn points, literally. Shit happens, I guess…), I was looking for some serious advise here.
    You really got my attention with the impressive kanji-chart and the opening sentence (“6 years in Japan, wow this guy surely got N1 already!!” I thought).
    No offence intended, pal, but after taking N4 (two times) N3 (two times), and still striving to pass N2, I find this article really disappointing… Anyone can find the story of the JLPT in Wikipedia, and honestly, what advise can you provide if you haven’t taken it yet???

    For those who are going to take the test N3-N1, I recommend to get through the guides 新完全マスター published by スリーエーネットワーク. There are 4 books (文法、語彙、聴解 and 漢字) for every level. For those taking N5 or N4, look for 日本語総まとめ, published by アスク; they have the same 4 books for each level, plus 読解. (By the way, this series of books also covers N3-N1, but I don’t like them that much.)
    You can find them in almost every middle-sized bookstore or in Amazon or Rakuten. I have found them very useful so far.

    I wish you (us) all luck on this ride!

    Manuel, from Osaka

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Im sorry you’re not happy with the article, but as i have already said my time in Japan was not consecutive. So the reality is I have only actually been studying Japanese for less than a year. People learn at different paces and have different approaches to taking tests. I am simply providing a personal account of how I am preparing to take the test for the first time.

  • Bernie Low says:

    Hi! I don’t have specific question examples but If my memory serves me right, I remember for the listening section they played a conversation between co-workers to decide where to eat for lunch. There was no explicit conclusion drawn in their conversation though they listed the pros and cons of each restaurant and you had to choose based on inference. They love making you infer the answer by yourself.

    For reading comprehension, they like to put two similar options or trick you by using synonyms and antonyms in answers options. Or, the passages have paragraphs that are “irrelevant”, such as long winded summaries of everything above, and sometimes, they even throw in a comment in the last sentence to try and throw you off.

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    Hi Canice, thanks for replying. Yes it seems you are right. I got my info from a telephone conversation i had with someone at JEES (the test organizers). However upon further research it seems it is indeed only 2000 thats required. Sorry for the misinformation.

  • kelsey says:

    Awesome!!! I’m taking the N5 in December too, and this is helpful for sure. Good luck and がんばって!

  • papiGiulio says:

    Huh, you have been here over 6 years and you will do level 5 test? Surely after 6 years you can at least pass level 3 no? I doubt how much companies value a JLPT certificate, all the companies ive been to didnt care. As long as you could communicate within the company. 🙂

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      I should have maybe made it clearer in the article but i havent been here for 6 consecutive years. I was in Tokyo and Okayama for almost 4 years, then i left japan for 2 and a half years, and lived in Hong Kong. During that time i pretty much forgot all my Japanese and then i finally came back to Osaka in 2013. Im probably around N4 level now. But i want to take N5 just to make sure i pass.

      • Raymond says:

        Hey pardon my ignorance, i thought the very first year staying in Japan should qualify you to attempt N5 at least, no?
        I spend zero years in Japan and i failed my first attempt on the N1 this summer.
        You guys that reside in Japan have so much of opportunity to increase the learning pace compare to us living outside Japan!

  • Sik says:

    As somebody who really never looked up into it (I’m happy with just being able to get away when talking to Japanese people), I was under the impression that you had to do the levels in order (e.g. you couldn’t do level 4 without first passing level 5). Fun stuff.

    For what things is passing the JLPT actually required, or is it just for the sake of showing a certificate? (I don’t plan to go live to Japan, but I’m still curious)

    • Bernie Low says:

      Some schools use JLPT certification if you want to opt out of Japanese language classes, or if you want to take classes in Japanese. I’m not sure but it was also a requirement in order to go on exchange in Japan for some schools. Also, my friends who have been doing job hunting in Japan have found that Japanese companies are looking for people with at least N2.

      Some part time jobs for foreigners will also list JLPT level as a requirement, though if you can prove your Japanese is good enough to communicate well etc it should be fine.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      From my experience, you can take whichever level you like. I could maybe pass N4 now, however I have decided to take N5 first just to get the hang of the exam format. I once knew a woman from China who came to Japan and went straight for N1 and passed it first time.

  • Bernie Low says:

    I can only speak from personal experience (I took N2 last December) but I’d say Listening and Reading are the most important sections in the JLPT. Listening because you can score more/most easily (full marks is very possible) for it and Reading because it’s the biggest section and usually longer than people expect it to be.

    While Listening is the easiest to score it’s probably the skill that’s the hardest to improve in a short amount of time. What my friends and I like to do is watch Japanese TV/shows/audio etc in 2x speed, or getting used to listening to Japanese at a faster speed so that you train your ears to catch things. I personally also listen to quite a bit of Japanese music.

    The Reading section is extremely taxing on the brain and will take the most time to cover so most people suggest to do the early vocab/kanji/grammar sections as fast as possible/skip the ones you don’t know and go back because completing the Reading comprehensions are more important.

    I’m currently preparing to take the N1, which I’m not exactly hopeful about passing, but having done some practices, it really is very true how big the gap between N1 and N2 is. Also since they like to use the kanji for many terms that are more commonly written in hiragana or use lots of synonyms and antonyms to confuse you.

    I wrote a blog post about what it was like to take the N2 and lessons I learnt from it (http://www.cute-pop.com/jlpt-in-japan/) and if anyone wants to ask me about N1/N2 prep I’d be open to sharing my experiences with them 🙂



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