If you’ve been studying Japanese for a while, you might have heard of the JLPT, or Japanese Language Proficiency Test. A lot of Japanese study materials are marketed toward people who plan to take this exam for school, work, or personal purposes, so the acronym might look pretty familiar.
I took the JLPT N2 once in 2021, and think it’s a fairly decent gauge of your on-paper Japanese skills. It’s also a handy little qualification to have if you want to live/work/study in Japan, or get a Japanese-related job regardless of where you live. But before you burn the midnight abura cramming for the JLPT, you should know whether it’s right for you or not. In this article, I’ll give you a general overview of what the JLPT is, why people take it, and what you can expect when you saunter confidently into that testing room.
What is the JLPT Anyway?
The JLPT stands for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. It’s a timed, paper-based standardized test designed to gauge your reading comprehension and listening skills in Japanese with five difficulty levels.
Who do we have to thank/blame for this? Well, it was devised by the Japan Foundation and Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (what a mouthful!) in 1984. Hundreds of thousands of people take it around the world every year, so it’s currently the most common test of Japanese language proficiency.
The test was revised in 2010 to be more difficult — looking at you, N1 — and thus was born the current version of the JLPT we know and love today. And you don’t have to be in any special Japanese program or classes to take the JLPT; it’s open to anyone who signs up. While the JLPT is intended to test non-native speakers, native Japanese speakers can take it too. The exam’s five levels go from N5–N1 in order of increasing difficulty, with test-takers choosing which level to take.
Why Do People Take the JLPT?
Why would people voluntarily subject themselves to standardized test-taking, you ask? Believe it or not, there are actually all kinds of reasons why people sign up, depending on their Japanese language goals.
According to a survey by the Japan Foundation in 2018, overseas applicants take the JLPT for two major reasons. One reason is for work — to get a job, promotion, or salary increase, inside or outside of Japan (33.4%). The other is simply to measure their level of proficiency in Japanese (33.2%). Another big motive is to gain admittance to a Japanese university, for those want to enroll in a program taught in Japanese.
In Japan, I’ve found that people often take the JLPT for practical reasons. Almost every listing for a full-time technical and/or office job that will require you to operate primarily in Japanese requires applicants to have N2 or N1 certification. However, it tends to be rare that you have to show proof, as often the most important thing is demonstrating in the interview that you’re capable of performing the job at the desired Japanese level.
Almost every listing for a full-time that will require you to operate primarily in Japanese requires applicants to have N2 or N1 certification.
That said, you obviously shouldn’t lie about having passed the JLPT, since occasionally employers do ask to see your certificate. Plus, if you say you have it on your resume, you may need to show a copy upon receiving a job offer. Also, for some professions, there’s a higher chance that it really will matter. For example, medical practitioners, dentists, veterinarians, speech therapists, assistant nurses, some caregivers, and many other medical workers licensed overseas must pass the N1 before taking Japan’s medical licensing exams. So if you’ve got white-collar dreams in Japan, or simply aren’t sure what level to call your Japanese skills, you might want to start boning up on verb conjugation.
Without a passing score on some level of the JLPT, it can be tough to get into a Japanese-taught university program as well. There are language schools dedicated solely to progressing students through each level of the JLPT, from N5 to N2/N1, hopefully culminating in their acceptance to a Japanese trade school or university. (I went to one of these language schools!) And hey, for all of you looking to prove you passed middle school? N1/N2 certification can also get you exempted from the Japanese-language test on the accreditation exam for completion of junior high education. All in all, there are quite a few doors you can open by waving an N1 or N2 certificate around.
Outside of Japan
On the other hand, more people outside of Japan sign up just to test their knowledge of Japanese, even if there are fewer concrete rewards for passing the exam. Students of Japanese are sometimes encouraged to use the JLPT as something to strive toward in their studies, or at least use as a general framework to gauge their abilities as they progress. For example, university professors sometimes design their courses around material for certain levels of the JLPT, and a lot of online study material is divided up by JLPT level. And for some self-learners, it can be a helpful goalpost as well. If you’ve been grinding it out at the WaniKani reviews mill for a long time, it can be extremely gratifying to pass the JLPT and prove to yourself how much you’ve learned.
If you want to live in Japan at some point, the JLPT is one tool that can help you do that.
But even if you are overseas, there can be some practical benefits and added bonuses to passing the JLPT, such as improving your resume for Japan-related programs like MEXT or getting a Highly Skilled Foreign Professional visa. Passing the N1 earns you 15 points toward preferential treatment for this visa, and the N2 gets you 10 points. You can find more information about this point system on the Immigration Bureau of Japan’s website. But basically, if you want to live in Japan at some point, the JLPT is one tool that can help you do that.
That said, not every student of Japanese has to take the JLPT. In fact, standardized tests are only one measure of language proficiency, and an imperfect one at that. So if you’re not trying to get a job or go to school in Japan, you can decide for yourself whether it’s worth it!
How Can I Take It?
Alright, now you know what the JLPT is. But how do you get your Japanese-learning posterior in one of those chairs to take it?
Be sure to take note of the dates you can sign up, because the registration period is notoriously short!
The JLPT is given twice a year in Japan, in July and December. Overseas, it’s given once or twice a year, depending on your location. And it’s not offered online, so you’ll have to hike out to a testing site and take it on paper. You can look up your testing site and sign up online on the official JLPT website and MyJLPT registration portal. Be sure to take note of the dates you can sign up, because the registration period is notoriously short! The window to submit your application is usually about two to three weeks long for each test date. I’ve managed to miss this window twice in my life, so be vigilant.
Each host city has its own designated testing site(s). In Japan, it could be anywhere that has the capacity to host crowds of nervous foreigners — for instance, I took it at a huge hotel in Nagoya. However, overseas, it may be your local Japanese embassy/consulate or university.
The application fee can vary based on your location and level, but it’s generally 5,000–6,500 yen in Japan and $50–60 in the US. Before you cough up this change, make sure you’re actually available on the test date. Unless the test is canceled due to circumstances like COVID, you don’t get a refund if you miss it. The Japan Foundation has certainly profited from my negligence in that department (read: skipping the test to go to a concert or take finals), so don’t be like me!
What’s the Test Like?
So what exactly are you and your number two pencils signing up for?
Well, the JLPT is an in-person test that lasts about three hours, with some slight variance depending on the level. You’ll be in the same room as other test-takers for the entire time. The proctors will read the instructions aloud to you, time each section, and watch to make sure you’re not cheating off any secret kanji scribbled on your bottle of Pocari Sweat.
You’ll need to bring your photo ID, test voucher, and handy dandy pencils and erasers. It’s worth mentioning that the anti-cheating rules can be pretty stringent, meaning no pencils with designs on them, erasers with wrappers, water bottles with labels, or clothes/bags with Japanese characters on them. How well these restrictions are enforced might vary depending on your proctors, but best not to take any chances. They’re also not supposed to lend you extra pencils, and there may not be a pencil sharpener available, so bring multiple!
Since the test is quite strictly timed, I recommend bringing or buying a cheap analog wristwatch for the occasion.
Additionally, since the test is quite strictly timed, I recommend bringing or buying a cheap analog wristwatch for the occasion. If your testing room doesn’t have a reliable or easily-visible clock, you’ll be glad you brought it. Digital watches are okay too, but make sure they don’t beep or make any sounds that might get you disqualified. Then they’d have to shred your test and feed it to the wolves. 🙁
Overall, the JLPT is a pretty straightforward experience — highly standardized and some amount of nerve-wracking, depending on how much you’ve got staked on it. Taking the test once was enough for me, but don’t let that stop you from sending the Japan Foundation fifty dollars twice a year if you want to!
Levels of the JLPT
So now you should have a pretty good idea of what taking the JLPT is like, but part of the experience will depend on your level. So, what level of the JLPT should you take?
The JLPT has five levels: N5-N1, with N5 being the easiest and N1 being the most difficult. As mentioned, N2-N1 are often regarded as qualifying a person to be able to work in a business-Japanese setting or get by in an all-Japanese academic program. About 90% of international students looking for jobs in Japan are reportedly N2–N1 level, according to Jump Japan Media. Conversely, N5–N3 are geared more toward basic, “everyday” Japanese.
Your mileage may vary, of course, but here’s a rough breakdown of what you might be able to do at each level:
To determine which level you might want to take, I suggest looking up videos and resources of study materials for each level to help gauge your knowledge. You can also refer to this official “JLPT Can-do Self-Evaluation List” of comprehension tasks based on what examinees who passed each level of the exam reported they can do (e.g. read novels, understand TV dramas, etc.).
Choose the level that speaks to you, or that you have to take in order to meet any school or work requirements. Keep in mind that you can retake the same level whenever you want, as long as you pay to apply again. You can also start low and work up to a higher level over time. Just know that if you have N1, N2 won’t be of much use to you, so you can skip from N3 to N1 if you want to go for it without worrying about failing. Even if you don’t do well, you’ll gain the real-life experience of taking the test in person, which can give you a much better idea of what you might need to do to pass it next time. But it all depends on your priorities and situation. I took the N2 instead of the N1 because I valued passing the first time over gaining experience. So it’s up to you!
Sections of the Test
You know about the levels of the JLPT now, but which skills should you be brushing up on to prep for it? Well, pretty much everything except speaking and writing — vocabulary, grammar, reading, and listening comprehension — because there are no speaking or writing sections on the JLPT. So at least you’re safe in those regards!
In general, all levels of the JLPT test you on three main categories: Language Knowledge (Vocabulary and Grammar), Reading, and Listening.
In general, all levels of the JLPT test you on three main categories of Japanese language proficiency: Language Knowledge (Vocabulary and Grammar), Reading, and Listening. The Vocabulary section is pretty straightforward: you’ll choose kanji readings in multiple-choice questions, fill in the blanks in sentences with the correct words, and pick which sentences have roughly the same meaning. The Grammar section will have you choosing the correct particles to use in a sentence and puzzling out which sentence order is correct. As you might expect, the Reading section contains passages of varying length and style with accompanying comprehension and fill-in-the-blank questions. And the Listening section mostly consists of short, medium, and long conversations you have to remember the details of in order to answer the comprehension questions that come after.
The chart below shows you the section breakdown of each level of the JLPT.
|N5||Language Knowledge (Vocabulary)||20 mins|
|Language Knowledge (Grammar)・Reading||40 mins|
|N4||Language Knowledge (Vocabulary)||25 mins|
|Language Knowledge (Grammar)・Reading||55 mins|
|N3||Language Knowledge (Vocabulary)||30 mins|
|Language Knowledge (Grammar)・Reading||70 mins|
|N2||Language Knowledge (Vocabulary/Grammar)・Reading||105 mins|
|N1||Language Knowledge (Vocabulary/Grammar)・Reading||110 mins|
As you can see, unlike the N5–N3, the N2 and N1 group Vocabulary, Grammar, and Reading into one long test section. This means you can complete them in any order no matter which one comes first in the booklet. The time allotted for each section can vary depending on the year, so be sure to check the JLPT website’s time schedule for the most current information.
Aside from the content and difficulty, did you notice the other main difference between JLPT levels? That’s right, the length of each test varies quite a bit, with lower levels taking less time than higher levels.
The N2 and N1 last approximately three hours overall, while the N5–N3 only take between one to two hours. Basically, the higher the JLPT level, the longer you’ll be sitting there Christmas-treeing the answers. (Just kidding…maybe.)
It’s worth noting that the time limit on the Listening section tends to be a hard limit. The proctors generally are not supposed to replay any questions no matter how pitifully you beg. So make sure you use the paper they give you for note-taking while you listen, because it’ll likely save your life. Other than that, all you can do is listen up the first time around and hope no one around you coughs or squeaks in their seat.
The time limit of the JLPT makes it partially a test of endurance.
The time limit of the JLPT makes it partially a test of endurance. Granted, during my N2 exam, there was a short break in between the Language Knowledge and Listening sections during which you could go to the bathroom and have a snack to replenish your test-taking juices. But even so, I found it difficult to sustain my energy levels enough to stay 100% focused throughout the whole test. It’s easy to drop off after Vocabulary/Grammar/Reading and snooze through the Listening section – the worst section to take a nap, since there are no playbacks. So make sure to prepare for the time limits and get a good night’s sleep beforehand!
Scoring & Results
Okay, you’ve gone through the testing gauntlet and hopefully made it out the door with your dignity intact. Now, how will the almighty Japan Foundation decide your fate?
Well, there’s a certain benchmark of points required for every section in order to pass, meaning you can’t bomb any of them. On average, you have to get at least a ~32% on each section and a ~50% on the whole test to pass. However, each level of the JLPT is scored a little differently math-wise, so I recommend viewing the breakdown for yourself on the JLPT’s “Determination of pass/fail” page.
But how exactly do they decide how well you did on each section? That’s a complicated question. The way the JLPT is scored is actually kind of convoluted. They use “scaled scores,” meaning your score isn’t a direct one-to-one reflection of how many questions you got wrong. Instead, the Japan Foundation calculates results using Item Response Theory (IRT), which is based on your “answering patterns.” This means they take into account which questions you got right and throw out questions everyone tended to get right or wrong. You won’t be notified of your raw score, only this scaled score. And good news: there’s no penalty for getting questions wrong, so try to answer them all!
They use “scaled scores,” meaning your score isn’t a direct one-to-one reflection of how many questions you got wrong.
Presumably because of all this fancy arithmetic, the exams take about two to three months to score. So just sit back, watch people gossip about the test on Reddit, and wait for the results to roll in. You can see your results online on MyJLPT, and your Score Report will also be physically mailed to you via the institution where you took the exam. The Score Report tells you your score on each section, but doesn’t go into detail about which questions you got wrong. Overseas examinees get to see their percentile rank compared to other test-takers, too. And if you passed, you’ll also receive a nice little Certificate of Proficiency to obnoxiously whip out next time someone doubts your Nihongo prowess.
Hopefully after reading this, you have a better understanding of what the JLPT is and whether you’re interested in taking it. If you do decide to sign up, best of luck!
Whether you’ve been diligently studying for months or slammed a bunch of grammar into your noodle the night before, I’m proud of you. Even if you gave up after twenty minutes and doodled a picture of Colonel Sanders on your answer sheet, at least you know more about where you’re at now. Remember, the real achievement is in showing up and doing the work to better your Japanese, no matter your score.
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