Is the JLPT enough to Work in Japan?

Is the JLPT enough to Work in Japan?
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Lee is taking a look at how much the JLPT really says about your ability to speak Japanese at work.

The short answer to the initial question is a simple no. It took me over a year to really get a grip on workplace Japanese. During that time, I was more or less lost in limbo, trying to piece together what was happening around me.

But let me start from the beginning. When I started my job, with the N2 in my pocket, I thought I was ready for it all.

JLPT doesn’t cut it

Even the most basic Japanese lets you live comfortably in Japan’s bigger cities. Most conversations also go quite well as long as the other person can make assumptions on what you meant to say.

At work, this is a completely different story. How you say things matters. Being precise matters. Depending on the setting and who you are talking to the words and expressions you use can vary greatly. Whether in meeting, or writing a report, appropriate phrasing for each situation is key.

How to master Workplace Japanese

It didn’t take long until I began to realize, that the JLPT didn’t prepare me for my Japanese workplace because the JLPT unfortunately only tests passive Japanese skills. But real-life conversations don’t follow textbook patterns.

Learn what you really need

Doing something completely wrong because you misunderstood the task you were given (but thought you kind of got it), or feeling frustrated because the others simply don’t seem to understand what you are saying, are common experiences for us Japanese learners. Struggling with the language at work is not only stressful, it is also time-consuming. Knowing the right expressions and staying polite will go a long way to keep small misunderstandings from turning into bigger issues.

When studying I found going through grammar up to N2 really helpful. Aside from this, most vocabulary for your job won’t be part of your JLPT materials. To learn business Japanese and how to communicate at work, I found it best to listen to my coworkers and observe how they use words and expressions. Turns out they tend to use the same phrases over and over again, so once I assembled my personalized study list, things got a lot better.

Constant exposure

Are you ready to use Japanese 8 hours a day, 5 days a week straight? I know I was not. In some ways, learning Japanese on the job is a lot easier than studying for the JLPT. As a student preparing for the JLPT using what I learned in real-life, especially as I was studying more obscure words and grammar points for the higher levels, wasn’t that much of a concern at the time.

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At work, I suddenly had to deal with the language actively. I was constantly on my toes figuring out what expression to use in this or that concrete situation to get my message across and trying to make sure I sounded polite enough. The first weeks were stressful, I felt drained when coming home. But I never learned more efficiently, and as my Japanese improved, the tiredness disappeared.

Learning by Speaking

When you realize that everything you want to do gets tougher just because you cannot communicate well, the urgency and focus with which one studies changes drastically. What worked best for me was making a commitment to talk no matter what was holding me back. Once I did my coworkers started to correct me by repeating what I said back to me in proper Japanese. This constant feedback was the cure for my Japanese issues.

I didn’t only use the work hours, I asked colleagues out for lunch, joined club activities, and did anything to increase practice opportunities. This way I could get more confident at talking about a wide variety of topics. On days off, hanging out with Japanese friends, volunteering, or any form of interaction are great ways to get out there and expand your comfort zone.

Situational Awareness

The next level is to adapt the way you talk in Japanese to the respective situation. The JLPT tests you on correct keigo use, but real-life situations require more flexibility to phrase things appropriately. Understanding how Japanese people apologize or adjusting how you explain something depending on who you are facing requires good instincts. In my team, we use a lot of technical terms to communicate effectively. The goal is to be so precise in what is said that there is no room for misinterpretation.

I only started to appreciate our precise communication, after I tried to explain an issue to a designer who didn’t have knowledge of the process and the terminology. It quickly got long-winded and confusing. Keeping in mind who I was talking and adjusting my structure and expressions accordingly, helped me to not only say what I want but figure out how to make myself better understood in Japanese.

Reading relevant stuff

Even if you are not working yet, what you can do is read the same news sites as Japanese professionals do to learn how they talk about industry-specific topics. The JLPT trains you to grasp the gist of diverse topics quickly but for work you need a detailed understanding of a specific field.

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What I like about reading news in Japanese is that it doesn’t feel as much like studying and I can keep up with what’s going on around me at the same time. Reading through the first articles is going to take a while but once you start noticing patterns and the same words appearing over and over again, you will get used to it in no time.

If you look for an easier entry option to challenge your Japanese reading skills, try NHK’s easy news. They edit Japanese news articles so that elementary school kids and foreigners can understand them, also providing pronunciation and word explanations.

Japanese IT terminology

Learning the words

I had no knowledge of the Japanese IT terminology when I started my job. My company had experience with hiring non-Japanese and inexperienced people so they handed me a list of a few 100 words I should remember. Let’s just say, learning all of them took some time but paid off in the end.

IT vocabulary is a blessing and a curse. Most IT terms are derived from English so recognizing them is relatively simple. The issue lies in their pronunciation. Even though the word is the same, the katakana rendering changes many terms so much that English and Japanese pronunciation often sound nothing alike.

Mastering the pronunciation

Some words like router rendered as ルーター you might able to identify upon hearing them for the first time. Other words get a uniquely Japanese twist by being rearranged the way personal computer turned into パソコン. And sometimes you just need to add all “u” sounds you possibly can. Nobody understands when you say “google” but if you say グーグル, really savoring every vowel in all its Japaneseness, everyone will know what you are talking about.

There are plenty of opportunities for everyone involved to marvel at the things the other party seemingly doesn’t understand until they figured out what sounds got lost in translation.

For me learning Japanese and new programming skills at the same time was difficult. Don’t limit yourself to desk study time but figure out how to learn things on the go, get other people involved, and just make it a part of your life. In the end, it all comes down to practice, so just have fun with it!

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Engineer working in Tokyo with a passion for discovering Japan's local culture. My goal is to visit all of Japan's 47 prefectures!