Taking JLPT N2 and N1 – The Road to Success

Taking JLPT N2 and N1 – The Road to Success
Florian
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“Japanese level: N2 or higher” is a common requirement for job offers in Japan. In this article, I share my personal experiences and recommend preparation strategies for the test.

What does passing the JLPT mean?

Passing the JLPT proves that you’re able to deal with the Japanese language on a certain level (in the broadest sense possible). It also equips you with an official certificate that opens many doors when job hunting. While you can certainly get a job without the JLPT if you’re fluent enough, being able to show HR a piece of paper makes things easier.

On the other hand, it is true that JUST passing the test ultimately doesn’t mean anything in “the real world”. Most importantly, the JLPT is missing a speaking section. If you want to work using Japanese, being able to hold an actual conversation is crucial.

The other missing part is writing. It’s not as important as speaking, but at least if you’re going to use Japanese for work, you will have to write a lot. E-mails, chat messages, proceedings reports, and internal documents are all part of everyday life and you won’t be able to delegate them all.

People often make it seem like the grammar and vocabulary for N2 and N1 are on the same level as 13th-century haiku vocabulary when it comes to everyday usability (I’m exaggerating, of course). To me, that always seemed a bit short-sighted.

Think about how you’re using your native language. You might not be able to hold a scientific discussion about the concept of genetic mutation, but you know the words and what they mean on a basic level, right? There are speech patterns you would never use yourself, but you still understand them when they’re used by someone else, right?

Especially when you’re living in a foreign country, you will be always be confronted with new information you couldn’t prepare for, time and time again.

Therefore, your level of understanding needs to be higher than your level of speaking. Even if you never actively use N2 or N1 vocabulary or grammar, having studied them will give you the ability to deal with a greater variety of situations without feeling overwhelmed. In that sense, I would say that studying for the higher levels of the JLPT is not a waste of time.

My experience with the test

Before I give you my study recommendations, let you tell me a little bit about my way to N1. This section got a bit longer, so if you’re not interested in hearing my life story, just skip to “Study advice”.

I first came to Japan about ten years ago, when I was but a wee high school student. I did a one-year homestay in the countryside. I learned a lot as a result. Back then, I (kind of) knew Hiragana and Katakana and could awkwardly introduce myself, but that was about it. Almost no one around me spoke English, so I had no choice but to get better at Japanese.

When I returned to my home country, I wanted to take the N3. However, that didn’t end up happening because I lived in a backwater town and the next city where I could take the test was too far away. In my remaining two years of high school, I focused on kanji and vocabulary while watching anime on the side and also reading my very first (light) novel in Japanese.

Moving on to university, I took the dangerous route and chose Japanese Studies as my major. Besides taking classes and talking with Japanese exchange students, I started reading more and more Japanese texts in my free time, both fiction and non-fiction. We were also required to use a certain amount of Japanese sources for our seminar papers. Over the years, I created two huge stacks of custom-made Anki flashcards.

I briefly thought about taking N2 first. But since I had been putting the test off for so long already, I decided that I might as well go for N1 right away. I finally took it in July 2016 and ended up acing the test – 180 out of 180 points (oh no, now I’m bragging). I think there was some degree of luck involved and I could’ve easily gotten a few questions wrong, but it is what it is.

Looking back, passing the JLPT was more or less a natural result of my studies and experiences up to that point. However, I am also aware that I had a lot (and I mean A LOT) of time that not everyone has. I certainly don’t think that you need 7 years to pass N1, but overall, I feel that a slow and steady approach yields the best results.

Study advice

Below, you can find my recommendations based on my experiences with learning Japanese.

Basic approach

Start early and avoid cramming. The most “crammable” subject is grammar because it is just about patterns you have to memorize. For everything else – vocabulary, reading, listening – I’d recommend a long-term approach.

Unless you invest all your free time, your reading or listening comprehension will not make huge leaps in a single month. Getting vocabulary and kanji into your long-term memory takes time as well. Starting 6+ months in advance makes sure that you retain the things you learn and keep making steady progress. A broader knowledge will give you more flexibility, which leads to less stress when taking the test.

Use textbooks as tracking tools. The advantage of textbooks is that they make your progress easy to grasp by presenting you with the things you have to learn in a neatly proportioned fashion.

However, since there are no “definitive lists” for the JLPT anymore, focusing too hard on textbook content decreases your ability to deal with unexpected things. I’d recommend using them as a general guide of sorts and as preparation for the types of questions you’ll encounter, not the ultimate and perfect preparation tool (despite many of them claiming to be exactly that).

For pre-JLPT textbook study, I found both the Kanzen Master and So-Matome series to be useful (I only used the grammar and vocabulary books though).

Practice daily. “If you don’t use it, you lose it” sounds a bit corny, but it’s true. You could make a schedule with evenly-proportioned study segments, or just decide on the fly. Whatever you do, try to incorporate at least 1-2 hours of practice time into your day, every day.

Remember that “practice” doesn’t have to mean “sit at your desk and stare at a book”. A certain degree of comfiness is totally acceptable. It will help you to turn language learning into a habit – something that you just do without feeling like it’s a chore.

You could be listening to something or reviewing vocabulary on the go, reading a book or news article while enjoying a cup of coffee and some sweets, watching a drama episode, writing about your last weekend on Lang-8 or Hello Talk, etc. Be sure to remain in “study mode” though to prevent your mind from wandering too much. You can do that by taking notes or making new flashcards after practice, for example.

Have some other goal than the JLPT. Wanting to practice for the JLPT specifically is only natural. After all, you paid money for it and want to make sure you’ll pass.

However, always remember that passing the test is not the ultimate goal. Ideally, the JLPT should just be a step on your way to something else, not the end of your journey. Think of the things you want to do once you pass the test – read that novel or watch that movie you’ve been interested in, do in-depth research, live and work in Japan, or something else.

Schedule book.

Kanji and Vocabulary

My main recommendation for building kanji and vocabulary knowledge is: Read, read, read.

What kind of text you choose doesn’t matter, as long as you end up with a healthy mix of different genres and voices (serious vs informal). A simple way to start is by reading NHK News or the more accessible version (featuring furigana), NHK News Web Easy. If you have access to them, I’d also recommend using novels and non-fiction in book form.

My study method was pretty basic: I just started reading the text and kept going as long as I got the overall meaning while circling or writing down unknown words and kanji along the way. After finishing an article, chapter or a certain amount of pages, I wrote down all the things I circled and made custom Anki cards for them.

The cards contained the word, its meaning in my native language (German), the copy-pasted definition from a Japanese-Japanese dictionary and one to three example sentences. If the Japanese word was very specific and had a 1:1 equivalent in German (e.g. 遠心分離機, えんしんぶんりき – centrifuge), I sometimes omitted the dictionary definition and the sentences.

In my head, I separated the vocabulary I picked up into two groups: Those that I felt I would only need to know passively (for further reading or the JLPT) and those that I wanted in my active word stock. If I had encountered the word in a contemporary text, I would at least put it into the passive category, no matter how obscure it seemed.

When a passive word came up during review time, I would only mentally check if I knew its general meaning and keep on going. For active vocabulary, on the other hand, I would recall the example sentences and also write the word down. The JLPT doesn’t have a writing section but putting something on the page is an easy way to check if you really remember it.

Another thing I did was taking detailed notes on words that have similar meanings. You probably already know this if you’re reading this article, but the JLPT includes questions where you have to choose the right kanji or word for a sentence. The options given are often very similar and only differ in nuance, so it’s important to be able to differentiate them.

If you’re confused, turn to your textbook, a dictionary (ideally Japanese-Japanese, like Kotobank) or Google. For example, if you want to know the exact difference between 設立 (せつりつ) and 設置 (せっち), just search 設立 設置 違い and (Japanese) pages explaining nuances and usage should come up.

Did you notice that I didn’t talk about Kanji until know? That’s because I eventually shifted into learning them almost exclusively from new words they appeared in. If you ask me, studying single kanji separately becomes a pure waste of time above the N3 level.

Grammar and Reading

When taking the test, you should read the questions (and the possible answers) first and then proceed to go through the text as quickly as possible while searching for the parts that contain the answers.

The skill that is most useful here is quick-wittedness – in particular, the ability to quickly grasp the structure and meaning of a text you’ve never seen before. Judging by what I heard from friends, many simply can’t get through the text quickly enough because unknown words or sentence structures trip them up too much.

If you’re at the upper intermediate level, you should be starting to correctly “guess” the general meaning of new words and grammatical patterns based on the context they appear in. If you’re still struggling with it, I strongly suggest that you start practicing. It is a fundamental skill that will eventually free you from boring study lists and pre-constructed Anki decks and increase your flexibility.

The solution is obvious (and I am repeating myself here) but the best way to prepare for this part of the test is, again, to just read a lot. Not only things you’re personally interested in but also “boring stuff” like every-day political or economic news.

As I said before, I think that grammar is the only part of the JLPT you can truly cram for. Compared to vocabulary (where there’s just no end in sight), the number of grammar patterns is relatively limited. Once you finish going through the N2 and N1 textbooks, you can be pretty confident that you’re well prepared for the test.

Young man reading a book.

Listening

I think by this point, you can guess what my advice is going to be. Yeah, it’s “just listen to a lot of stuff”. Helpful, huh? OK, please stop looking so angry – let me elaborate a bit.

The hardest part about the JLPT listening sections is that the audio tracks often contain a whole bunch of information that’s only there to confuse the listener. Two people briefly talk about work – then about ramen for a solid minute – and then about work again, for five seconds. Question: What did they say about work? That kind of thing.

To perform well in this section, you need the ability to tell the important things from the junk and remember what was said earlier.

For practice, I’d recommend listening to Seiyuu radio shows. These shows are purely for entertainment, and as a result, the informative content level is very low.

However, they tend to feature a lot of laughter, giggling, shouting, people talking over each other, quick topic switches, etc. That makes them surprisingly hard to follow, which turns them into a useful practice tool. As a plus, once you get used to them, they can be pretty fun to listen to.

Many of these shows are on platforms like Radiko that can’t be readily accessed from outside Japan. However, thankfully there are people who upload the episodes on Youtube, so you can listen to them there or download them with a video to mp3 converter.

A personal recommendation is the long-runner 佐倉としたい大西 (さくらとしたいおおにし), which has been ongoing since 2016. It features the two voice actors Sakura Ayane and Oonishi Saori. For other shows, just search for 声優 ラジオ.

Conclusion

Studying for the higher JLPT levels may seem like a daunting task. But if you focus less on cramming and instead steadily build your knowledge over time, you will acquire a certain flexibility that will alleviate stress and help you make the right decisions even if you’re not 100% sure. When in doubt, stick with your original answer – chances are that your intuition sent you on the right path.

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Florian

My love for ninjas and interest in Chinese characters (kanji) were what first made me come to Japan, as a high school student. Over ten years and many visits later, I’ve found a job here and have chosen it as my new home.