Twice a year, hundreds of thousands of Japanese-studying hopefuls apply for the ever-challenging Japanese language self-evaluation test—the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). But the results are less than encouraging; only about 30% of applicants actually pass this test. So why should you submit yourself to such a grueling and mentally taxing exam? The answer lies within the rewards.
Passing the JLPT is considered a great achievement in the eyes of the Japanese Government, especially if you pass N1: the hardest of five tests. Passing N1 will grant you special immigration benefits and employment inside Japan. You may also apply for employment with N2; however, not everywhere will accept you. The main reason people take the test is for immigration purposes, but there are also students of Japanese who take the test to gauge their own Japanese ability. So what is the JLPT exactly? How is it set up? And how can you apply to take it?
Before the Test
The JLPT is held twice a year in Japan and once a year in other countries. It’s always held on the first Sunday of December and July, and runs from 12:30pm to 4:00pm. Applications for the test can be made online, or at your nearest bookstore that supports international books. The JLPT books are ironically considered foreign learning materials, so larger mall bookstores like Kinokuniya will usually have the applications and study materials in stock. If
you decide to apply by mail, you should not that it’s a bit more complicated and expensive. No matter if you apply online or through a store, your certificate of pass or fail will come in the post at the same time. But the benefit of applying online is that you will know if you passed before you get your certificate in the mail.
The application period for each test is open for one month, roughly three months before the test date. So, the July test application period is the month of April and the December test’s application period is the month of September. After you apply for the test you receive a voucher in the mail. If you apply for the July test, the voucher will come around the middle of June, and for the December test it comes around the middle of November. The test fee is ¥5,500. If you choose to apply through the mail you also need to pay postage and a ¥500 fee for the packet. Along with your application you need to attach a passport-sized photo that can be taken at a photo kiosk for around ¥700. There are five levels to the test (N5–N1), increasing in difficulty as the number decreases (i.e. N5 is for beginners, while N1 is for experts). Each test has its own set of goals that complement that learner’s ability. Each test has only three sections that are tested: language knowledge, reading comprehension and listening. You can relax, as there is no speaking or writing portion.
I will now give a small breakdown of the levels and what is tested. This information has been taken from the official JLPT website. On this site you can apply to take the test, have some of your your FAQs answered, and take some practice tests.
Test structure, what is tested, and time frames
This is the beginning level. It tests your ability to understand some very basic Japanese used in everyday situations and basic simple conversations. For a list of what is tested and how, click here.
The second beginners test. It tests the ability to understand basic Japanese, and tests more than the N5 in the case of broadening the topics selected and kanji used. Here is the breakdown of the N4 test.
This is the bridge level between the beginner levels N5 and N4 and the advanced levels N2 and N1. Please note that the difference in language knowledge between the three higher levels is immense. From personal experience, N3 to N2 is a big jump, and N2 to N1 is another big gap. One of the most challenging things I think with N3 and higher is the introduction of honorific Japanese (keigo) and more natural speed in conversations. The topics for reading problems become increasingly harder and more natural. Here is a breakdown of the N3 test.
N2 branches into more advanced and analytical topics. It introduces detailed newspaper article comparisons, medical journals and longer, more in-depth reading comprehension. Known as the Advanced 1 step to Japanese testing, N2 is nothing short of challenging. This test also introduces in more detail the use of high school level ancient Japanese grammar. These are the honorifics used in extreme formal occasions and formal letters. Here is a breakdown of N2.
Finally we have reached the end, the most challenging and difficult of the JLPT levels: N1. This test has a pass rate of around 20%. Being the most challenging of the five, the material tested covers a wide range of knowledge and topics, along with the applicant’s ability to apply the knowledge and comprehend it effectively and quickly. The most challenging aspect of N1 is the time frame. The test is short in comparison to the material, so on top of language knowledge you need to be able to read quickly and effectively. Here is a breakdown of N1.
Now that you know what is tested on the JLPT, how do you go about tackling these monsters of tests?
The first thing you need to do before you can actually begin to study is take a practice test or a self evaluation test to see which test you should take. I highly recommend not only taking practice tests and scoring yourself, but also timing yourself. There is a breakdown of the time frames for each section of the tests in the links posted above. After you take the practice test and find out where you are most comfortable, you should start studying for that test. Taking a tiered language test is challenging because what you might have learned in school is spread out through all levels of the test. Like me, you might find that your kanji is N2 level but maybe your vocabulary is N3, and your listening might be somewhere between N2 and N3. After you take the practice test you should graph what your strengths and weaknesses are for that particular test. I also recommend that on your first time taking the JLPT, you should take the level one lower than the one you feel your ability is at. This will make studying less stressful and you will get an idea of how the test is structured.
When you begin to study for your particular test I recommend you buy the books associated with your test. They will give you a broad overview of what the test makers deem important grammar, kanji, reading, and so forth. The books that are tailored to the tests are indispensable resources and I highly recommend that you use them to study. The JLPT series that I use also breaks down the material on daily objectives and weekly reviews over a period of eight weeks. My recommendation is to buy the practice test books along with the study books, and try to take a practice test at the end of each month and track your scores and your progress.
The most important thing when studying for the JLPT is vocabulary; you must get the vocabulary down. Trust me, there is a lot. However, there are many sites and programs that you can use to help you study. A few I enjoy are:
- Memrise: This is a learning community, not just for Japanese but for anything you want. You make a profile, pick the courses you would like to study, and just keep going. This is a great study method for vocabulary and kanji. There are also lots of JLPT-specific courses available that other people made, which you can also use to study. You can also follow me on memrise (username: killbybm08). It’s lots of fun, and treated more like a game.
- Kanjibox: This is an application through Facebook. You can also buy it from the App Store on iPhone or Android. It strictly focuses on kanji and vocabulary, but it is also very helpful and easy to use. You can also compete with your Facebook friends for high scores.
- Official JLPT website: Here you can take practice tests and learn about the various tests, structures and benefits of taking the test. They also have studies and linguistic information about each JLPT level. This is also where you go to apply for the test online.
I hope this information will be helpful if you are looking to better your Japanese ability. I have taken the JLPT three times: N2 once and N1 twice. It is an extremely challenging but rewarding experience. I wanted to share my knowledge with you to help you become familiar with the test. There is also so much more information available. If you need to know more you can always contact me, and I can try my best to help you.
Good luck studying!