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 . . .