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Tweet of the Week #115: Standardized University Entrance Exam Kanji Trap

What kind of tricky kanji do students in Japan face?

By 3 min read

Last weekend, about 550,000 aspiring students took the standardized university entrance exam (大学入学共通だいがくにゅうがくきょうつうテスト) in the middle of the pandemic. Despite COVID-19, hopeful students had to show-up or miss their one chance to move on to higher education.

For many students, the test is the culmination of years of studying in cram schools or and preparatory schools, or じゅく  and 予備校よびこう in Japanese.

Failing can mean an additional year of cramming as a 過年度生かねんどせい, also familiarly known as ronin (浪人ろうにん).

After exams, newspapers and TV programs share test questions with the public and go over all the tricky parts. The Japanese language QCM portion of the exam is where trick questions hurt the most. For Japanese language learners, it’s also an excellent opportunity to better understand how important knowing kanji is to read and write Japanese.

Tricky kanji QCM

共通きょうつうテスト国語こくご1問目いちもんめから林先生はやしせんせいになった。 ラスト3分さんぷんづいた。

“I became Professor Hayashi* for the first question of the Japanese language portion of the standardized test. I noticed (the right answer) in during remaining three minutes.”

Professor Hayashi, a well-known preparatory school teacher and public figure on national television, should feel proud!

The exercise shared in the picture measures test-takers’ knowledge of vocabulary and Japanese kanji reading. As you may know, the Japanese language has many homonyms and kanji, which are logograms (often inaccurately called ideograms) that come in to help distinguish words.

The first question gives ぞく, from the word みんぞく, as a reference point with no context to understand its meaning. Test-takers must first guess what could be the correct kanji for ぞく.

Learn the trick

Each of the four sentences below the reference point also has a word written in hiragana with “ぞく” in it.

  • しょぞく(costume)
  • かいぞく (pirate)
  • りょうぞく (good morals)
  • けいぞく (continuation)

The sentence helps find the meaning of each word and consequently, with which kanji they are written. Test-takers must then figure out if any of these words share the same kanji with the “ぞく” in “みんぞく.”

Here’s the trick. When hearing みんぞく, most Japanese folks (and Japanese learners, we’d bet!) think of 民族, which translates to “people” or “nation” (sometimes citizens). None of the four words work with the kanji 族 and, therefore, the instinctive answer is not to make any checkmark on the answer sheet.

But luckily, @Series3220 realized it with time to spare. There’s also the word 民俗, which means “folklore,” and shares a common kanji with 良俗 (good morals).

Kanji review!

You may love them or loathe them, but kanji is an unavoidable part of learning Japanese, especially if you intend on moving on to intermediate and advanced levels. We’ve got a quick guide here to help you learn kanji the smart way. We’ve also got plenty of material to review with our Kanji Cheat Sheets.

Finally, check out our recommendation for free apps to study Japanese anytime, anywhere.


Japanese Romaji English
大学入学共通だいがくにゅうがくきょうつうテスト standardized university entrance exam
試験しけん shiken exam
じゅく jyuku preparatory school
予備校よびこう yobikou preparatory school similar to じゅく, the main difference being their legal status
過年度生 かねんどせい kanendosei a student who failed and will spend a year or more studying to retake the examination
浪人ろうにん rounin Colloquial – a student who failed and spend a year or more studying to retake the examination
国語こくご kokugo Japanese language (in the sense of “national language”)
1問目いちもんめ ichimonme first question
づく kizuku realize
民族みんぞく minzoku people, nation
民俗みんぞく minzoku folklore

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