By Alexander Martin
Once you start to get a firm grasp of the Japanese language, you’re probably going to want and test your knowledge. Luckily for us, there are multitudes of tests to take to tell you how great you are. Below I’ve assembled a few of the more well known tests, what to expect, and why to take them.
The first and most obvious worth mentioning is of course the JLPT.
Short for Japanese Language Proficiency Test or in Japanese 日本語能力試験（にほんごのりょくしけん・nihongo noryoku shiken）
This test is offered by The Ministry of Education world wide once a year and twice a year in Japan. It is used mainly because it was a requirement up until 2003 for foreigners to enter a Japanese university. Other reasons to take the JLPT include satisfying via requirements for permanent residency in Japan, medical requirements for foreign doctors wishing to practice in country, foreign students entering middle or high school, and of course for self checking your level of competency.
While most of the above reasons to take the test actually require the highest or second highest level passing score (N1 or N2) there are currently 5 levels of examination to apply for.
The standardized test is offered from easiest to hardest from N5 through N1. Each test has a Reading section composed of Vocabulary and Grammar as well as Reading. There is a separate listening section as well. Test duration varies from 105 minutes to 170 minutes increasing with the difficulty of the test.
A comparison of hours of study time was compiled by the Japanese Education Language Center to help those studying determine which level to take:
It’s worth noting that you only need a 50% overall and within each section to Pass the JLPT for each grade (except N1 which expects 100/180 pts)
When you pass, which you won’t find out until 2 MONTHS later, you’ll get a nifty Certificate of Proficiency that you can show off to your friends, give to your BOE for the cost of test reimbursement (N3 only), and put on your resume for future jobs here in Japan.
While the JLPT is a great choice for testing your competency level, there are of course some flaws in the system.
WHY I THINK IT SUCKS
It’s a bit expensive
at 5000Y per test and is luckily offered 2x a year in Japan. If you intend on taking the test 2x a year, the travel costs can certainly add up depending on your placement relative to the two test sites in Aomori.
The test is all multiple choice.
There are other tests of Japanese level that have speaking and writing portions included. I personally feel that these may be a better test of your abilities although you probably already know going in just how well you’ll do on each section (my listening is weak so I almost always do poorest here). You can of course just guess and if the probability gods are on your side, you could manage a pass from an otherwise inevitable fail. You wouldn’t feel truly happy knowing it wasn’t a legitimate pass would you?
The grading takes forever.
After you get your test results you only have a few weeks to decide if you want to take the next test, which unsurprisingly opens up the next week after getting your results. Should you take the same level again and try to pass? Get a higher score on the one you passed? Try to get to the next level in just 4 months? It kind of feels like a money farm.
WHY YOU SHOULD STILL TAKE IT
While I’ve listed those reasons above to be weary, the test is still a good tool to test your general competency and for bragging rights. While you can study for the test and pass the test and still be terrible at every day Japanese, generally this is not the case. If nothing else, signing up for the JLPT may just be the fire you need lit under you to bring motivation to your study habits that have been slowly dying off. And of course if you need the certification for any of the above reasons, you’re probably already aware of why you need to pass!
The next test I want to talk about is the Kanji Aptitude Test or 日本漢字能力検定 (にほんかんじのうりょくけんてい). The cool cats all just call it the “kanken” though.
This is the test that all Japanese students are urged to take constantly up until about high school. Yes, unlike the JLPT, which I would wager no Japanese student has ever taken, the Kanken is almost exclusively taken by them.
Kanji isn’t easy to learn and use, which you’ll know if you’ve ever demonstrated your kanji skills in front of a native speaking friend. One way they managed to cram all the knowledge of these pictographs into their head was constantly studying for this test in elementary and high school.
There are TWELVE levels of the Kanken spanning from level 10, or elementary grade one kanji, through level 1, which is considered Ph.D or graduate level understanding of kanji. Between level 3 and 1 are actually 4 levels. Pre-2 2, Pre-1 and 1. This is because the knowledge gap between level 3 and level 1 are pretty staggering. Recent statistics place the pass rate of level 1 for native speakers at 15% and less than 2000 applicants take it each time it’s offered.
This test is by and large vastly different from the JLPT. While the JLPT is offered for foreign students of the language, the kanken is specifically made for native speakers. Meaning, there are no tests offered outside of Japanese. You are required to both write and answer multiple choice questions. The test all last less than an hour with most levels being no more than 30 minutes. The test is also no more expensive than 3000Y or so.
The knowledge required to pass the kanken varies only slightly. For the first several levels, you only need to know the stroke order, radical names, pronunciation and most common words comprised of the included kanji. For level 10 this may be along the lines of knowing the most common 10 compounds of 水 and their stroke order. Antonyms words may be asked as well so you can’t just go in knowing proper stroke order and nothing else (上下、右左 etc)
Once you reach middle school level equivalent (L6 and above, you will also be expected to know the difference between homonyms (we talked about these last article!) as well as idiomatic phrases and ¾ kanji compounds like 一生懸命 and what they mean.
Unless you’re like Atsugiri Jason who passed L1 on the Kanken and used that to start his rise to Japanese super stardom, the highest level worth attaining based on study time is probably level 2. On level 2 you are required to know all 2200 regular use kanji, meanings, synonyms, antonyms, and proper use of kanji within sentences. This knowledge will ideally be obtained by you just living and interacting in Japan over several years with regular study. Above level 2 you have to do some very specific studying catered to the test if you are not a Japanese ancient literature professor or otherwise.
All in all, to pass Level 1, you need to know and be able to write, differentiate between 6400 kanji and their unique usage, as well as country names (yes each country has a kanji for it), complex radicals, special use compound words, ateji, etc etc.
The test is offered several times a year, mostly by elementary schools, so contact your supervisor or talk to your JTEs about applying.
WHY I THINK IT SUCKS
The Kanken is NOT for the light hearted even if you want to just take a lower level. I know the 2200 regular use kanji and decided to only take L5 which is is just 1008 kanji. What you don’t realize is that a one sheet test represents YEARS of learning. Don’t expect to pass just because you know how to write 花 perfectly.
WHY YOU SHOULD STILL TAKE IT
Being able to pass a kanken of any level is a serious undertaking. It means you understand probably the hardest part about learning Japanese, which isn’t even originally Japanese! (see previous article here) Your Japanese friends and co-workers will be seriously impressed and actually mean it! It will look hella good on a resume for other jobs here in Japan and abroad.
The last test I would like to talk about today is the J-test. As opposed to the JLPT, this test was created to gauge practical Japanese proficiency (sick burn on you JLPT). The test is largely listening. It’s held 6 times a year in only Asian countries to include Japan. It’s three parts include Listening and Reading comprehension, as well as a writing section.
There are seven total levels from A-J, where A is highest and J is considered business level Japanese. Costs are 3600Y for A-F and 4500Y for J level.
During the Listening portion, you’ll listen to audio clips while looking at pictures, listen to conversations, or choose the most similar from a lost of words.
In the reading section you’ll read then answer questions in multiple choice for reading comprehension.
In the writing section, you’ll be asked to write the kanji for specific hiragana listed as well as completing sentences and constructing whole sentences based on given words.
The nature of the J-test aims at more accurately testing your ability of communication rather than just understanding like the JLPT does so this is another test I would suggest you consider! There are tons of resources on their website for practice and to know what to expect on test day.
WHY IT SUCKS
This kind of test requires critical thinking. You’re not just recalling that そば means beside, but also noodles. You’re going to be constructing sentences like you were back in school for homework, and trying to make it sound NORMAL. If you’ve taken JLPT test before, this kind of test may take some getting used to studying for.
WHY YOU SHOULD STILL TAKE IT
I mentioned before that you can take the JLPT and pass a high level and still not be able to effectively communicate earlier. This test is a good way to round yourself out if you feel that this may be true. Of course the best way to interact with your world is to have a bit of conversation, some give and take, not just be a silent observer reading signs and creepily overhearing schoolkids conversation on the train
Know of another Japanese proficiency test that others should know about? Comment below or send us an e-mail to let us know!
Below find links on each of the test listed above: