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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.