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Is the JLPT really worth it?

In 'Abenomics' Japan, a fluency certificate can make your career

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

The final countdown to this Sunday’s Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) has begun, but professionals say piling pressure on examinees might do more harm than good at this point.

Having said that, recruitment specialists and Japanese language teachers interviewed by The Japan Times stress that passing the N1 or N2 level of the exam is of paramount importance for foreign nationals hoping to land a top job in this country.

The JLPT is a biannual testing service organized by the Japan Foundation and Japan Educational Exchanges and Services. It will take place Dec. 1 across the country and in more than 100 cities around the world. The tests are divided into five levels, from N1 through N5, with the N5 being the easiest.

“The JLPT is definitely a yardstick for many companies seeking to hire foreign nationals in Japan,” says Yuji Shinohara, president of Daijob.com, one of Japan’s largest multilingual job search engines with 420,000 registered users.

According to Shinohara, around 58 percent of job offers on his site require that applicants speak “fluent” Japanese, and 39 percent say their applicants should be able to speak “business-level” Japanese. Fluent can be construed as N1 level, while business-level could be translated as N2 level, he explains.

“It may not be a requisite, but having an N1 or N2 certification will go a long way for anyone seeking a job here,” Shinohara adds.

“I’ve heard from students that for those seeking a job here, N2 is the minimum requirement,” Natsuko Ura, head teacher at J’s Language School in Ebisu, also says.

Ura explains that N4 and N5 are of no value when it comes to being hired by a Japanese company.

While N3 doesn’t look as good on paper, any semblance of an attempt at learning the language can help, often in unexpected ways. Some career councillors overseas believe that for those on a short stay in Japan, even attaining the N5 certificate can impress employers as it demonstrates a proactive attempt to get involved with the community.

While the JLPT does not specify which levels are required for a person to enter a school or obtain a job, the N5 certification proves that the person has the ability to understand basic Japanese and read simple sentences in hiragana, katakana and basic kanji.

Passing the N1 test, meanwhile, verifies that the person can read newspaper editorials and “comprehend coherent conversations,” the JLPT states on its website.

According to JLPT organizers, the first exam of 2013 held in July saw 259,330 applicants take the test, while 313,322 took it in December 2012 (the exam is held in fewer places in July).

Whereas 63 percent of the 16,921 N5 test-takers passed their exams in July, only 31.7 percent of the 90,342 were successful in the N1-level exams.

Ryusaku Ito, the educational affairs chief at Jikei Gakuen’s Toyo Language School, has some key advice for those gearing up for the JLPT.

“There is no reason to fear the exam,” he says. “The JLPT is a test that checks whether you have the ability to communicate in Japanese proficiently. Hence, you should focus on learning practical Japanese.”

Focusing too much on grammar or vocabulary won’t do the job, since it will leave you speaking Japanese “like a Google translator,” Ito warns. Being able to understand the context of a conversation and predict what sort of message will follow the first part of a sentence is a good drill, he adds.

[It's important to note that the JLPT does not have an oral component, but people I spoke to for the article assumed that those who are able to pass N1 or N2 will be able to communicate at a similar level.]

For the July exam, 56.3 percent of the students at Toyo Language School passed the N1 test, and 74.6 percent made the N2 exam, both substantially higher percentages than the national average.

“We believe it is important that you practice understanding Japanese sentences from the context, and being able to guess where a conversation is going,” Ito says.

J’s Language School’s Ura adds that it is crucial for examinees to get used to the testing format, with only a week left for preparation. Going over past exams and trial tests will help examinees get used to the flow, she says.

With many of her students having difficulty in reading and understanding long passages of texts, she also recommends spending as much time as possible reading Japanese sentences and pieces of writing.

Daijob’s Shinohara, however, assures test-takers that there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel for those who manage to secure N1 or N2 certifications.

“Due to the effect of so-called Abenomics, Japanese companies are globalizing their business and expanding to overseas markets,” he says. “Because of such factors, I feel that there is a growing demand among Japanese companies to hire foreign nationals with JLPT certifications.”

For more information on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, visit www.jlpt.jp. Send comments and questions to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Ron NJ

    “Having said that, recruitment specialists and Japanese language teachers
    interviewed by The Japan Times stress that passing the N1 or N2 level
    of the exam is of paramount importance for foreign nationals hoping to
    land a top job in this country.”
    Only in Japan is having some useless certificate more important than actual skill, and I’ve seen enough people with L1/N1 that couldn’t communicate their way out of Shinjuku station to confirm that the test is a joke, to say nothing of the rampant cheating that goes on during the thing (looking at you, Chinese test takers who won’t stop talking, passing notes, and continuing to fill out answers after time has been called).
    Until the test starts including speaking in its grading criteria, it will remain completely useless – and the same can be said for Japan’s domestic foreign language programs in primary and secondary schools: lots of people who look good on paper due to cram-friendly test formats, but who are completely useless when it comes to real interaction.

  • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

    It doesn’t seem all that worth it to someone like me who freelances and has no interest in working at a company in Japan. The N1 level seems to focus heavily on Japanese that’s not used in everyday life or hardly at all. I cringe whenever I see someone requiring JLPT certification as it’s not a very good measure of Japanese proficiency in my opinion.

    • http://durf.org/ Peter Durfee

      At my company we always note “JLPT1 or equivalent skill” as the starting point we want to see when hiring a translator. If the person knows her stuff it will be evident from the translation trial and interview, so the piece of paper isn’t all that vital. (It’s still a handy way to weed out people who really aren’t ready to take on translation in a professional setting, though.)

      • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

        How would having JLPT1 certification be an indicator of being ready to do translations in a professional setting? You can study for it entirely on your own and communication skills are not tested. More than anything, prior experience should be valued. I’d rather hire somebody that’s already done numerous jobs for companies instead of a person that just passed this test. As Vegenmashuu pointed out, the sole reliance on multiple choice questions creates a false impression of ability. As long as you answer a question, there is a 25% chance you’ll get it right even if you have no idea what it means.

        Out of curiosity, what is considered “equivalent skill” to the JLPT1?

      • http://durf.org/ Peter Durfee

        The ability to read a newspaper or magazine article without spending all your time in a dictionary, say. A passing score on the test is no guarantee of that ability, for sure, but a passing score on level 1 is going to be much closer to the ballpark than a level 2 pass would be. (And I described it as a “starting point” for a reason—I think if you’re ready to do translation you’re able to pass the test, but if you’re good at translation you’ve probably grown well beyond what it can gauge.)

        I’d say about half the translators we’ve hired over the past decade or so had taken the test. Needless to say we’ve never hired anyone on the strength of the JLPT alone.

  • rui101

    I agree with Ron NJ.

    I’ve been living in Japan for more than 10 years. During that period, I’ve had more than 12 different jobs in a variety fields such as teaching, IT, management, architecture and engineering. Never was the JLPT mentioned in any of the interviews I did. I passed level 3 in 2004, when the test was still divided in 4 levels instead of the new N5 to N1 format. Then, after trying level 2 twice and barely failing with 59% both times, I gave up on the JPLT for two reasons. First one being that the test is just too unfair for non-Asian examinees. It focuses only on written Japanese, and as mentioned in the article above, it doesn’t evaluate the examinee’s speaking skills. Chinese and Korean nationals have an easy time going through the kanji and reading sections of the test. A lot of them score high in all levels the JPLT, but they actually speak very poor Japanese. Pronounciation, well don’t even mention it…

    So would a company in Japan hire someone with a JPLT N1 or N2 certificate rather than someone who speaks the language fluently? From my experience, luckily the answer is no. Which brings me to reason number two: a JPLT certificate is pretty useless. The JPLT is good for testing one’s grammar and reading skills,that’s pretty much it. It is not going to do much for you when you’re in the middle of a job interview. Speaking fluent Japanese will help a lot more.

    • John Snow

      I am of asian decent and Kanji is hard for me.

      • disqus_JyiAbgax5w

        descent

  • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

    Precisely.

  • Antonio Au

    It s unfair without speaking test , yet unable to write or read certainly unacceptable .
    . People who never go to school can speak the language where they live , doesnt mean that person has the language ability .

    People complain becoz they fear with the reading part , especially with kanji.

  • Veganmashuu

    yeah, I taught eiken briefly in Japan and was amazed how they could see any value in it. multiple choice is not always a bad thing in moderation, sole reliance on gives a false impression of ability.

  • 6810

    In other words, fiction.

  • jedi4432

    Very misleading title. Using the question format alludes to the idea that the JLPT is not worth it (especially with the word “really”), and nowhere in the article does it show that it is not. A title written more as a matter-of-fact such as “JLPT: Definitely Worth It” wouldn’t have wasted this JLPT level 1 reader by making him look for reasons why it wasn’t.

  • KH

    Translating and passing the N1 are two different things. Passing N1 would be an absolute bare minimum to get started as an intern or trainee. Also, one should never attempt to translate from English into Japanese if it is not your native language. It would require great skill, innate talent and years of experience to be able to pull that off.