How to Pass the JLPT

The JLPT, jeezus. My alarm clock went off and I rolled from futon to floor at the ungodly hour of seven a.m. I made a leisurely cup of French Roast, then ran to catch the express train to Higashi Bumfuck University for the several hours of torture that constitute the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

When I arrived, it was like a scene from Custer’s last stand: 2,000 Indians and me, Paley McBeigeface. Is it racist to say I was the whitest guy in the room? Well, then add in ageism, because I was also the oldest, by decades. The only other white folks were a few Chinese and Koreans. Everybody else looked to be from New Delhi, Islamabad, Malaysia, or the Philippines.

Just to linger on this point for a moment, there’s a persistent image in Japan of “foreigners” or “gaijin” being Caucasian, or perhaps black. That’s not even close to being true. The reality is that Japan’s infused with brown-skinned immigrants. Not saying there’s anything wrong with that either. I like curry as much as the next guy, and we thank you for staffing our 7-Elevens. Just trying to paint an accurate picture.

What is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test?

But back to the JLPT, which is a long-running psychological experiment designed to test one’s tolerance for filling in tiny circles with a Number 2 pencil. It’s conducted under the guise of measuring Japanese reading and listening ability via a standardized test, and is divided into five levels, N5 through N1, with N5 being the easiest. That level will cause you feel mildly nauseous, like riding the Tilt-a-Whirl at a county fair. On the other end of the spectrum is the fearsome N1, scientifically engineered to make you puke at the mere sight of the test booklet.

The JLPT is held worldwide in July and December, and in a typical year over a million people take it. I took the N2, because why not. It’s frequently required by employers, who reason that if you can keep from blowing cookies all over your answer sheet, you can probably stomach working at a Japanese company.

Is it Difficult to Pass the JLPT?

Is the JLPT hard? Are you fucking kidding? It’s stupid hard, easily the most difficult test I’ve ever taken. I mean, it’s in freaking Japanese. Plus, it requires you to sit on a wooden seat surrounded by a roomful of people for hours, concentrating on pages and pages of tricky questions and annoying magazine excerpts.

I mean, when was the last time you sat unmoving, working on anything for several hours? For me, reading Japanese goes like. . . stare at the page for fifteen seconds, get depressed, gaze into space, stand up, stretch, make a pot of coffee, do some push-ups, look back at the material, check Google News, vomit, then go take a wee. I’m ADHD as hell, and no amount of Ritalin’s gonna make the JLPT any more bearable.

Of course, there’s a whole online community of folks who’ll tell you it’s easy to pass the JLPT. Know why? Because there’s a lot of people in the world. So there’s always plenty of folks who succeed at whatever. But you can’t just hear from the lottery winners; you’ve gotta survey the billions of folks whose tickets came up empty.

My favorite are the people who say, Oh, passing the JLPT is easy. I just spent two years watching anime, read a pile of books, majored in Japanese at university, completed a stack of practice tests, moved to Japan, got a job at an izakaya, and made fifty thousand flash cards. Plus I’m eighteen and grew up speaking two other languages. Dude, that’s what you call easy? That’s the very definition of hard. 

Wrestling With the JLPT

I first took the N2 in 2011. I’d been living in Japan and speaking Japanese for years, so I thought I’d just show up and give it a shot. This is exactly like when I tried to get a Japanese driver’s license. I mean, I’ve driven millions of miles in cars and trucks since I was tall enough to reach the gas pedal. I freaking know how to drive. Plus, I’d already spent a year driving cars in Japan on an international driving permit, then three more years commuting daily on a motorbike, which is way harder than driving a car.

So I drove to the Driving Center, hopped in a boxy white sedan with an instructor and two Indian-looking guys in the back seat, and didn’t even make it half way around the test course before the instructor was like, Yer done, son. After that, I studied for a month, took the driving test again, and failed even worse. Japan doesn’t give a shit about your actual ability. There’s simply a checklist of boxes, and if you don’t tick them all in proper order, that’s your ass.

Needless to say, I failed the JLPT N2 miserably. So I studied for a year, and failed it again, by one point. I was like Jeez, what the eff? Everybody says this test is easy. After that, I studied for another year, then took the N3, just to see if I could. That I passed handily. Then several more years of working in Japan, watching Japanese movies, reading Japanese books, and speaking Japanese 100% of the time, during which I succeeded in failing the N2 two more times. I knew my Japanese was improving, only nobody told the JLPT.

Now, to be fair, I passed the N2 listening section every time. It was the reading that was killing me. When I took the test this July (2022), the grammar and reading section booklet was 31 pages long. You’ve got an hour and forty-five minutes to complete that, before moving on to the listening section. Sure, some pages are blank and others are sparsely filled, but even if you boiled it down, you’d still have a solid 20 to 25 pages to decipher. That’s a long damn test in a short amount of time.

To make matters worse, the reading section contains excerpts of opinion pieces from magazines and newspapers, with occasionally distracting commentary, like:

We Japanese shouldn’t hesitate to approach tourists on the street and in train stations to offer assistance. Many foreign visitors to Japan are fascinated with Japan’s rich cultural heritage, and would welcome the chance to learn from locals.

And this goes on for several more paragraphs, after which you have to quickly answer questions about the content. But rather than focusing on the questions, I’m already thinking how much I’d hate that. Like, What do you mean, “We Japanese”? Who you calling a foreigner? I’m a local too, you know. And what constitutes “many”? Or “rich cultural heritage”? Doesn’t every country think their culture is special? —Wait, what was the question? Oh damn, I’m already a minute over time and haven’t filled in any circles.

How to Pass the JLPT

So I was bitching about my difficulties with the JLPT to a friend who noted, “I don’t think your problem’s the reading. It’s your test-taking ability.”

Which made sense. I’ve been reading books and newspaper articles for years. But as I came to realize, the JLPT doesn’t reward ordinary reading. Given the time allotted, I couldn’t pass it if it were in English. My mistake had been reading every word, and getting stuck on anything that seemed unclear, which was all of it. Instead, what you really need to do is skim and guess.

Based on my experience with this test, I’ve concluded that in order to pass the JLPT N2, the level many businesses require, you need at least five things:

1. A general knowledge of Japanese, at a reasonably high level

You need to be comfortable using Japanese exclusively in daily life: reading your mail, talking with folks, and conducting transactions. This is where living in Japan confers an advantage, although you could probably do well enough overseas if you consumed enough media. Being Chinese would also be pretty freaking helpful.

2. A mess of vocabulary

You should have a vocabulary of about 6,000 words. Dag, that’s a lot of words for a guy who can’t remember four of the five items on his shopping list. And not just random words you encounter in real life, but words specific to the JLPT. That’s a key point. There’s being able to speak Japanese, and there’s being able to pass the JLPT, and the two aren’t necessarily correlated. You need to study specifically for the test, so you’ll want to add a heaping helping of flashcards to your diet.

3. A fairly solid understanding of commonly-used grammar points

The JLPT covers a lot of fundamental grammar, and requires you to make some subtle distinctions. For example, in English, we use words like “but,” “yet,” “however,” “although,” “despite,” and “nevertheless,” which all have similar meanings yet can’t be used interchangeably. There’s a lot of that going on on the JLPT.

An excellent way to improve both your grammar and vocabulary is to take classes. One-on-one sessions with live instructors are great, although online courses are also good. Classes help you learn the specific linguistic elements used on the JLPT. You can’t count on just randomly encountering and remembering those through anime, movies, or real life. Real life is wildly inefficient. Personally, I recommend the pre-recorded videos from Nihongo no Mori (I’m not associated with them, other than as a customer). Their lessons are effective and inexpensive.

Now, some people disparage classes. Yeah, some people are idiots. Bear in mind that your competition—the millions of folks from Bangladesh, Vietnam, Turkey, wherever—are spending hours at language school every day, then doing homework, followed by working shifts at 7-Eleven. That’s a tough protocol to beat.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that studying an hour a day for a month—sadly, what I do—is almost certainly less effective than studying five hours a day for six days, although they add up to the same number of hours. The more immersion you can get, the better.

4. The ability to work the test

If you’re good at standardized tests, that’s a big advantage. If not, you need to get good. The prevailing wisdom is to do a lot of practice tests, which, unfortunately, I can’t stand. They’re boring as crackers. I worked my way through practice tests far too leisurely, with sips of coffee, naps, and YouTube breaks. That’s probably why I failed four times. So don’t do that.

The JLPT also includes a number of questions that are unlike anything you’d encounter in the real world, such as word scrambles that you have to arrange in order:

his wife had / when night fell / gone missing / he returned home to find

But instead of working the problem, I’m thinking . . .Who is this dude, and where has his wife gone? Is she out with another guy? Is this a subtle cry for help on the part of the author?

So you need to get very comfortable with the unnatural questions presented on the JLPT, and particularly answering them at lightning speed.

By far the most difficult questions are the medium to long reading passages. Here too, there’s a test-taking strategy. There are different types of reading questions, and practice tests will help you determine which ones you’re best at. Do those first. Then if you run out of time at the end, you can guess at the harder questions that you might have missed anyway.

The test is really all about time. In real life, you can, and probably should, read slowly enough to grasp the entire meaning of whatever contract you’re about to sign. On the test though, the hell with that. You’ve got a precious few seconds to figure out what’s going on in the reading and what might constitute a reasonable answer. And you need to do that over and over again. It’s stressful and exhausting. So, like exercise, you need to build up stamina by practicing in a simulated environment.

Honestly, I didn’t do nearly enough practice tests, so don’t follow my example. I make these mistakes so you don’t have to.

5. Mollusk-like tenacity

Every time I took the JLPT, it was a beautiful, sunny day. That’s God’s way of letting you know he hates you studying Japanese. Slinking into the windowless testing room is like going to prison, and with every subsequent question, I was gripped with the impulse to say Screw this, blast through the emergency exit and run screaming to the beach. Drink a six-pack and work on my tan. That’s not exactly a success mindset. Some hypnosis might be helpful.

You also need perseverance just to keep studying, as it’s likely to take waaay longer than you’ve been led to believe, possibly by several years. But maybe Ken Seeroi’s wrong and you’ll sail through the test after a mere one year of studying. That’d be great, and I hope you do. Unfortunately, Seeroi Sensei’s never wrong. If this is your first foreign language and you’re starting from scratch, it’s gonna be a huge amount of work and take a super long time. Hope you’re 16 years old. Not trying to discourage anyone; just trying to set the proper expectation.

The Aftermath of the JLPT

I boarded the train from Higashi Bumfuck worn out and pissed off. The reading section had kicked my ass and I was absolutely sure I’d failed. I was mad at the test for taking over two and a half hours, costing so much money, having questions that were far too long, and providing inadequate time to answer them. But mostly, I was bitterly disappointed in myself. Sure, I’ve tried and failed at plenty of stuff in my life, but I’d never worked this hard only to come up short. After every JLPT, I’ve said the same thing: never again. And this time really was it. I had to concede the test was beyond my abilities, and I’d go to my grave without achieving the one thing I’d worked the hardest on. My life is a series of crushing disappointments. Ah, shit.

After that, I took three weeks off of work. I was wrecked. I did some traveling, drank a bunch of booze, womanized some women, and tried to forget the whole traumatic thing had ever happened. And I studiously avoided looking up my test result on the JLPT website. I just couldn’t bear to see it. Finally, when September rolled around, I logged in to get the bad news. As I’d expected, I’d—holy balls, what? I literally couldn’t believe it. I checked the site at least a dozen times, and finally a notice came in the mail, confirming it. I’d passed, and it’d only taken nineteen years.

Having now taken the JLPT six times, I’d say the best thing about the test is that it provides a decent roadmap for acquiring some language fundamentals. While you’re prepping for the test, you might just learn some Japanese. But the test itself is expensive, annoying, and a pretty shit indicator of actual ability. Please remind me never to take the N1. Although I must admit, it is tempting . . .

45 Replies to “How to Pass the JLPT”

  1. Well done Ken!

    I have taken the N2 twice and failed both times. My score the second time, after a year of studying, was worse than when I took it the first time! It is kind of you to share your experience which helps others who also find it truly difficult.

    1. Thank you. Yeah, Japan’s got heaps of these qualification tests, and it’s common for people to attempt them multiple times. I’m friends with a Japanese lady who took some sort of accounting exam seven times before she passed it. A big part of succeeding is simply not giving up.

  2. Hats off to you ken. Been in Japan 27 years now, run a very successful company with 8 staff and there is no f@@king way I would waste my time studying for that. Don’t get me wrong, knowing kanji is useful. It’s the type of kanji you need that most of these tests fail miserably at. I get the impression you’re a hard drinking tough mutha that doesn’t need to learn half of those characters but may occasionally need to be able to read the kanji for ‘ chronic alcohol poisoning imminent .’ I myself , boxing, motorbikes, snowboarding as hobbies as well as running a company, don’t need to be able to read a passage about the autumn leaves in Niko but do need to read all the specific vocabulary when putting one of my bikes through the inspection at the 陸運局 or going over spreadsheets with my accountant. Not sure that kind of kanji appears in the test . If they did , I might be interested. Maybe not.

    1. Honestly, don’t waste your time. You’ve made a nice life here, now don’t screw it up by struggling to master something Google Translate made obsolete years ago.

      And yeah, your impression of me is pretty spot on. Cheers for that.

  3. I passed Ni-kyu, barely, looong ago. 1987? 1988? I try reading kanji now and I’m just glad I have Google Translate. (I actually had to file a Japanese death certificate in kanji and Google Translate saved me.)

    I tried studying kanji again and woo, that stuff isn’t sticking. How many times am I going to see the kanji for flock before it sticks in my head? And I tried flash card apps but they’re not nearly as fun as the other apps I have on my phone and I don’t use them.

    Congrats on passing N2!

    1. Congrats to you too. Yeah, for me, the only way kanji really stick is if I interact with them often enough, such as in books or movie subtitles. And even then I still struggle. Japanese is pretty bloody hard. But who knows, maybe things will seem easier after a couple more decades.

      1. Oh and another thing that’s changed – when I took the ni-kyu test it was all Asians. The kanji portion of the test had characters I’ve never seen before and the other test takers were blazing through that section. But there was also a “translate kanji into hiragana” reading section and that was incredibly easy.

        1. Yeah, when I took the test in 2011, it was mostly Chinese people in the room. Certainly COVID has had an influence on their numbers, but there’s also been a massive influx of people from other nations since then. For some time now, Japan’s been actively recruiting people for “technical intern” positions, particularly in factory work and elder care.

          “According to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 1,724,328 foreign nationals were working in Japan as of the end of October 2020, of whom 23.3% were technical interns. This percentage was equivalent to 402,356 people, an increase of 4.8% from the previous year despite the impact of the Corona disaster.” https://imm.or.jp/en/about.html

  4. Congratulations, Ken!

    So instead of marrying another Japanese woman, you have found a different way to torture yourself. May I suggest spending more time drinking beer, eating black pepper potato chips and writing articles instead?

    If you start taking N1 this December, you should pass by 2033 at this rate. There is no time to waste!

    1. Thanks. Think I’ll stick with the beer and potato chips option. Then by 2033 I might get another article or two written.

  5. Haha. I am one of those guys from New Delhi. Gave the N3 in Dec 2021. Missed the cutoff by 3 marks! 92/180. Who the fuck set cutoff to 95? Such a weird point.
    July 2022 was even worse 87/180. I dont have N4 or N5. So after a year of prep and thousands of rupees spent, I have nothing to show for it.

    1. Everything about the test scoring is bizarre. I don’t understand it at all. My test booklet even had a message printed on it saying that some of the questions might not be used to calculate the final score. What the eff? I’d love it if they’d toss out questions I missed, but what if those happen to be the ones I got right?

      Thanks for bringing that up about the cutoff points too, because they’re all bonkers. To pass the N2, you need 90/180. That means you can get half the questions wrong and still pass. I mean, I’ll take it, but how is that “proficiency”?

      I know it’s frustrating, but good on you for trying. Keep it up. You’ll get there.

      1. Actually the system is taken from the U.S. curve system.

        The more people get one question wrong, the more it values. If everyone knows that か is at the end of a sentence then it’s basically worth nothing.

        For N1 this means Westerners are heavily advantaged since they’re competing against Asians who make different kinds of mistakes. Plus, there are very few kanji in N1 to not let the Chinese have an unfair advantage.

        For vocab that means that the onomatopoeia and non-kanji questions are worth much more than kanji.
        For grammar, that means that the Star questions are worth a lot.
        For listening, that means those last 2 questions are worth more than all the others.

        I think the JLPT is easy because it takes a lot less time and has less difficult questions than say, the CPE for English or the DeutschZertificat or DELE, where you basically spend 2 days on tests including writing and speaking, with little multiple choice to help you guess :).

  6. Hey Seeroi San.
    Congratulations…big congratulations.
    How do you think the average Taro would go on this test? My Miho who has a back ground in heavy engineering and vehicle manufacturing interpretation and translation thinks she’d bomb.
    Now if we could just get the Capture code sorted..
    Kampai .

    1. Thanks Craig, and sorry about the site glitches. I appreciate you letting me know.

      Anybody who went through Japanese middle and high school would readily pass the N1. There’s just a few things Miho would need to be prepared for.

      One is that a lot of questions are tricky or simply weird. Eri and Taro are deciding where to have dinner. Eri wants Thai food, but Taro had that for lunch. Taro suggests Mexican food, but Eri hates cilantro. Taro says, “Doesn’t Thai food also contain cilantro?” How many milliseconds elapse before Emi punches Taro in the nose?

      The second is to be prepared to work fast. There really is a lot of information, and if you’re not diligent, it’s easy to run out of time.

      Finally, you simply have to survive the test. You’re locked in a large room for hours. The guy behind you is coughing, the gal to your left keeps tapping her pencil, and the guy to your right smells funny. If your answer to “What’s your strong point?” is “sitting,” you’ll do fine.

  7. Hello Seeroi-san,

    this sounds a lot like passing the European Patent Office’s “EQE” test. Passing that test is a requirement for representing clients at the office, and the test is hard. Not intellectually, but by design. Just imagine: Everyone taking the test has a university degree, several years of experience, and yet passing rate is 30%. Complete madness. The test measures how verbatim you can predict the model solution. Used a different word? Well, no point for you. Didn’t cite the appropriate passage of a well known commentary? See you again next year. There are literally countries running out of “qualified” persons.

    Well, I can feel with you and have an idea how overwhelming the joy of passing such a type of test is. Congratulations! You have done well, and you didn’t even have to exploit a glitch in the matrix.

    So, well’ now see all sort of JR7 merchandise to commemorate the event and help others pass the test? “Specially designed ergonomic N2 pencils”, anyone? How about “specially designed N2 self-study blinkers”?

    1. I’m sure the JLPT has much in common with other “qualification” tests. The designers first have to determine what pass percentage they want to achieve, and then dial in the questions accordingly. If the exam’s too hard, nobody passes. If it’s too easy, then everybody does. In either case, the test would be useless. So they have to find ways of making the test just hard enough, by making the vocabulary more difficult, the quantity of material greater, or the time allotted shorter.

      As for JLPT merchandise, I’m planning to offer hammers, so you can simulate the feeling of the test by repeatedly hitting yourself in the head.

  8. My big question, Ken, is, how did you ride a motor bike for 3 years? I’ve been bicycling all this time, and finally got around to trying to convert my US license. My understanding is that an Int’l Driving Permit can only be used for 1 year, so without a license, you were driving/riding illegally?

    1. Yeah no, I first got a motorbike (scooter) license. I should’ve just gotten an actual (car) driver’s license, which includes scooters, but I seem to excel at doing things the hard way.

  9. Bumfucksreveng

    If you leave the country for more than 3 months, you can use an international license again for a year. Then repeat. I did it for 20 years being a gentleman of means!!!

  10. Great article, Ken! I loved it. Congratulations on passing the N2.
    Regarding a Japanese drivers license I seem to remember being able to convert my international license just by taking the eye exam. I think I needed glasses at the time and the eye exam guy thought I just didn’t know the words for right, left, up and down so he just let me go. Aah, the eighties. Keep up the great work and I hope the book is still doing well.

    1. Hey there, Joe.

      My book on Amazon is doing great, thanks for asking. How’s yours?

      Did you convert a US driver’s license to a Japanese one? If so, I don’t think that’s possible any more.

      Japan allows drivers from many countries to simply convert their licenses, but not the US, because there is no “US driver’s license.” There are at least 50 different state licenses, each adhering to slightly different rules, but no national license.

      US license holders have to first prove that they were in the US with a valid license for at least 30 days. They compare your license to your passport stamps to determine this. That was remarkably difficult for me, since I’d been in Japan for so long when I applied. I had to have my mother mail me my old licenses and passports from the US.

      Once that hurdle is cleared, then you can take a 10-question paper test and then begin failing the road test.

      It was a massive pain in the ass. I think it’d be easier to simply fly to Australia, get a license there, then fly back to Japan and convert that into a Japanese license.

  11. To borrow a line from a Robbie Robertson song, “this is sure stirring up some memories from me.”

    My journey to passing the N2 is very different from your own, Ken. I’d studied Japanese in college and lived there for nearly a year, then had a gap of maybe 12 to 15 years before I decided that I wanted to just get back into the language and achieve literacy. By applying for the JLPT I thought it would give me a great goal to work towards.

    Having no real idea of how hard the test was, how good my level while I was living in Japan (I had a Japanese girlfriend who didn’t speak any English, so by the mere fact of always speaking with her in Japanese I reckoned I was shit hot), how hard the various levels were and how hard it would be to knuckle down and learn what I needed to in the time available, I guess I set myself an impossible task … pass N2 in something like 7 or 8 months.

    Actually, before deciding what level to take, I’d decided that the biggest obstacle to literacy (my real goal, actually) was not being able to learn all the common-use kanji. So by using Remembering the Kanji and an online flashcard/mnemonic site that’s based around it (I forget the name, but it’s very popular) I managed to complete my run-through in around 40 days(*). Buoyed by that achievement, and having various other online resources to help with the grammar, reading and listening comprehension stuff, I thought that I had a shot at getting enough study/practice in before the exam.

    I could not have been more wrong.

    Well, I didn’t do too badly on the first time around. It wasn’t a complete whitewash, but it definitely showed me how hard the test is and how ill-prepared I was. Just because I “knew” (in the Keanu Reaves / Matrix sense) kanji, it didn’t mean that I could ace even that section. As for the rest, the biggest problems are just as you have described… time lost to confusion and diversionary thinking, and, of course, that you have to be absolutely ninja in terms of making every fucking second count during the exam.

    The second time around, I thought that I could maybe game the system a bit. Maybe I could do enough practice to nudge my scores enough in the sections that I hadn’t done so well in the first time around while buttressing the areas I had done OK in to meet the twin goals of passing each area individually and getting an overall passing grade when all the sections were added up …

    That might have worked. I probably had more time available to me the second time around but I didn’t really put in the time and the depth of my study materials was a bit shallow. Plus, when you have more time available, you’re bound to put off work …

    In the end, despite two frantic months of revision and stuff before the 2nd exam, I ended up doing worse than the first time.

    Cue a rethink … as part of my plan for the third attempt, I figured that I had got on so well in the first try because of a kind of “Beginner’s Mind” during the exam (Zen Buddhism reference, that). Since that had been the first time that I’d even seen anything resembling an exam paper (no, I never even looked at anything beyond the one sample paper that the JLPT site had), I wasn’t going to get hung up on stuff that was confusing me. So the first time through I was probably more honest to myself on stuff that I didn’t understand, whereas the second time through, I knew too much, so I spent too much time second-guessing myself.

    Or something like that. When we fail, we always have these ego-bolstering stories we tell ourselves …

    I’m happy to say, though, that on the third time around, I passed. I wasn’t a JLPT virgin at that stage, and behind the scenes, I’d actually done what most of my “competitors” were doing: doing lots and lots of timed sample papers along with all the multifarious question types.

    Sorry if I’ve used a few cuss words, but fuck! What a completely stressful, artificial, self-imposed juku-gulag. And for what?

    Although, on the other hand, leaving aside the insane time and concentration constraints in the exam itself, I do actually like the way that the test really does separate the posers (my earlier incarnations, as well as my current one, probably) from those that actually grok the material presented.

    I still have nightmares about whether, in the aural section, I should have gone with my gut feeling about the meaning and relevance of the word “seiza” (“sitting cross-legged” or “constellation”) vis-a-vis the correct answer…

    Thanks (semi-sarcastically), JLPT.

    Thanks (whole-heartedly), Ken.

    (*) I don’t recommend this, but if you’re willing to put in 8-10 hours a day, every day *just* to learn the kanji, I can tell you it *is* possible using RTK and flashcards.

    1. That was interesting and well-written. Thanks for sharing. Yeah, a little different path, but Whew, what a lot of work. We certainly had that in common.

      Oh, and studying 8-10 hours a day? Yeah, sign me up for that.

      1. Just a quick addendum …

        I think that having the goal of being literate in Japanese (ie, being able to read and write kanji) is a much more practical and useful one than passing some level of the JLPT. Sure, I’m happy that I put myself through the whole JLPT thing, but the biggest win you can have with the Japanese language is, IMO, just becoming literate.

        Even though I’m not living there (I’m in Ireland), it means that I can open NHK News or Sora24 and feel like I’m living a kind of (vicarious) Japanese life. Plus, I get to read various authors (Murakami and Murata most recently, but older stuff too) in the original.

        MM.. OK. My story/path probably isn’t very inspirational or useful for like 99.999% of the people reading this and thinking about their own forays into the Japanese language … shikataganai, I suppose.

        Um, thanks also for the “well-written” comment. I was well chuffed when I read that. Thanks.

        1. For sure, the real goal of language learning is achieving literacy and fluency. The JLPT only tests skills related to input (reading and listening) and doesn’t attempt to evaluate output (writing and speaking), so from the start it’s a lopsided test. Then even the way it determines those input levels seems questionable at best.

          So like all qualification tests, there’s an inherent gap, sometimes quite wide, between the circles you fill in on paper and your actual ability in the real world. Driving a car provides a salient example. Getting a license doesn’t mean you don’t still suck at driving.

  12. I had the same experience with the driving test; I stopped at the wide white line, then nudged over it to see if a car was coming (because a bush blocked my visibility). That failed me.

    I’ll never do the JLPT. I suck at tests, suck at sitting still, and will consider it my silent protest against Japan refusing to wake up to it being 2022.

    1. Smart man. There are almost certainly better things you could spend your life’s energy on, other than the JLPT.

      And yeah, during one of my failed driving tests, the instructor actually got out of the car to check how close I’d gotten to that wide white line. I gather that if you stop in contact with the line, you fail. I was about one millimeter behind it, but I still failed on something else.

  13. Congratulations Ken! I failed twice and passed N2 the third time. We shared very similar experiences (though when I took it most of the other examinees were Chinese as far as I could tell) and it wasn’t until the 3rd time that I managed to ‘hack’ the reading section to get the bare minimum marks needed to pass.

    Anyway, N2 is the sweet spot and will open most of the doors an N1 would without having to give up your soul and sanity. Love your writing and hope that all the new found success you garner from N2 won’t cause you to retire from blogging!

    1. Congratulations to you. That’s a great accomplishment.

      I may quit blogging at some point, but the JLPT would have precious little to do with it. That’s actually kind of funny, because a buddy of mine asked me “Why are you taking the JLPT?” and I didn’t have a decent answer. I’ve already had heaps of jobs in Japan, and it’s entirely possible I’ll never need to show anyone the damn certificate. It’s unlikely it would open any doors that aren’t already open.

      The only reason I took it is that somewhere I got the idea stuck in my brain that I needed to pass the N2, and I was just too stubborn to give it up. I’m strange like that.

  14. I took JLPT 3 and JLPT 1 back in my time.
    Passed both on first try 🙂

    I remember cramming sooo many Kanji. I vividly remember the back pain from that exercise.
    Other than that I worked my way through one or two of these grammar books and I think two “Mogishiken” books.
    I failed every single one of my Mogishiken back then, if only very narrowly. And then passed the actual test, quite narrowly again 😉

    If I took the test now I would probably fail the Kanji parts, but then I don’t need to.

    When I first came to Japan I used to hate on the Chinese guys learning Japanese. It just wasn’t fair, what with their Chinese characters and so on. Second time I came to Japan I had already passed the JLPT 1 and encountered some intermediate level Chinese guys. And I felt like a god 🙂

      1. Well, have a lot of time and do a lot of work, 90% of which is Kanji cramming.

        And as you wrote I think it’s very helpful to be able to study in a focused manner. As in 5 hours / day for 180 days will get you much further than 1 hour / day for 900 days.

        My personal method for Kanji learning was writing on an A4 sheet of paper from top to bottom, one Kanji in each line.
        Then close the book and write all existing readings next to it (in Romaji). Then use a book or something to cover the Kanji and write the Kanji for all the readings. Then cover the readings … rinse, repeat. Once I got down to max. 1 – 2 mistakes per page I would go to the next page. I did 4 – 6 pages per day.
        And then a few days later revisit the old pages, take the “difficult” Kanji (the ones you have trouble remembering) and do it again with only the difficult Kanji.
        I did not write the “meaning” to each Kanji, but I always kept a few combinations in my head for each Kanji, to help my memory. I think the brain needs some “content” besides the asthetics of each Kanji.
        Like: 全 -> 全て、完全

        1. Wow, impressive. Thanks for describing your method. You really dedicated a lot of time and effort to learning kanji.

          I feel like I had that kind of passion for things when I was in high school or college or…actually, now that I think about it, right up to the point when I moved to Japan. And now, these days, I really can’t imagine working that hard. If Japan has taught me anything, it’s how to be okay with mediocrity.

  15. I’ll always remember feeling deflated after my Korean friends explained how N1 is too basic for them – high school students of Japanese there are expected to pass it without much difficulty. They have an alternative called the Japanese Proficiency Test (JPT, confusingly still 日本語能力試験 in Japanese), a single test with a maximum score of 990. JLPT N1 is supposedly equivalent to JPT 660, which gives you an idea of how tricky it is.

    1. By all accounts, N1 is nowhere near native-level Japanese, so 660 out of 990 sounds about right. Still, I’d be thrilled to read and speak Japanese that well. Maybe someday. But probably never.

  16. Good to see a new entry Ken!

    This concept of “hard” or “easy” is a really interesting one.

    If somebody told me (a man rapidly approaching 40, with so many less fucks to give than a 20 or 30 year old) to go and somehow get an N1 equivalent in Mandarin in the next few years, while also still working, and paying bills, I would (figuratively) shit my pants. That would be the very definition of “extremely bloody hard” for me.

    But if that same somebody told me they would pay most of my salary for 3 years, and put most of my other life responsibilities on hiatus, I’d probably jump at it, and be fully confident of success at the end. I wouldn’t say that would be a “hard” thing to achieve. Primarily because the process itself would be fun. I would “study” (i.e. look up words or review SRS cards) maybe 10% of the time, and the rest of the time I’d just watch TV, listen to radio programs, and read books. For me, it would be like being on a relaxing and stimulating holiday.

    So yeah, I’d have to say I side with the general gist of mr K-you-know-who and his article on the JPLT test, at least in spirit.

    Yeah, the assumption here is that I would actually pass doing that. My justification is that this is how I passed the N1. I did zero JLPT preparation, and found the test pretty “easy”. And I mean that in the sense that, the raw vocabulary level you need is probably about the equivalent of a Japanese middle schooler in terms of raw numbers. I believe the typical high school student or undergraduate would find the test very easy.

    Yes, I absolutely did “formally” study Japanese in class for several years, ending many years prior to the test, but that got me to an N3 equivalent at best. I’d say my current Mandarin comprehension is about equivalent, which I’ve gained without any classes or textbooks. What really helped me get to that N1 level more than anything was just hundreds of hours of TV watching, thousands of hours of podcast listening, and a few thousand hours of enjoyable reading (mostly Manga, some non-fiction texts). Just raw time and exposure.

    Now, being able to spend a whole year almost exclusively doing something like immersion is a pretty privileged thing to be able to do. Myself, I was 27, single, and motivated by future scholarship money. On top of that, I was living in a shared house (when rent was cheaper than now) and was able to pay my bills working only about 15 hours a week. Pretty unusual circumstances to be sure. So flippantly claiming “its easy, anybody can do it” is flat out wrong, and probably years away from a mortgage or a desk job, is still blessed with pretty good health, etc. etc.

    But, and yeah maybe this is a pretty big but… -if- you are somebody reading this with intermediate-to-“advanced” (by school for foreigners standards) Japanese, who are capable of dedicating “most” of your daily hours to Japanese immersion in some form (maybe a job where you can still listen while you work for example), I would say, don’t worry about the JLPT. Just get very very used to Japanese, both spoken and written, with heaps of immersion.

    1. “This concept of ‘hard’ or ‘easy’ is a really interesting one.”

      Agreed. I believe the capacity for language learning is analogous to physical ability. When I was in my twenties, if someone had asked me how hard it was to run a marathon, I would’ve answered, “super easy.” Because I was born with a tall, lean physique, I enjoyed running, and did a lot of it. But now, after some minor sports-related injuries, a bit of weight gain, and simple aging, my answer would be “pretty effing hard.” And that’s the same activity, evaluated by the same person. For older, heavier people, it might very well be impossible.

      To your point, judging something as easy or hard, without including all the variables, is meaningless. For how readily one might learn Japanese, we’d have to factor in age, native language(s), bilingualism, environment, free time, access to materials, musical ability, motivation, economic status, and raw intelligence, just to name a few.

      So saying the JLPT is whatever, without including those details, would be misleading. Your description, by contrast, is much more informative. You were fairly young, single, motivated, and had ample amounts of free time. Then all it took was formally studying Japanese in class for “several years,” plus “hundreds of hours of TV watching, thousands of hours of podcast listening, and a few thousand hours of reading.” Yeah, piece of cake. I reckon people can determine for themselves just how hard or easy that sounds.

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