Whether you’ve been here for several days or several decades, listening to fellow expats, immigrants and other non-Japanese residents groaning about their dissatisfaction with their language abilities is nothing new. The advice I’ve received on how to improve, however, sometimes skews toward the exasperating.
I’ve been told (seriously) that speaking in archaic Japanese from the Meiji Era is the fastest way to gain respect from the locals. I doth protest.
I’ve been told, “See, what you need to do is date a Japanese chick.” Bro. It’s 2019. Cross-cultural copulation doesn’t guarantee bilingual cred. You’re going to have to work on that technique somewhere else.
On a more practical level, I’ve also been told tests are overrated and that there’s no shame in learning organically through socializing and occasional study.
The honesty’s admirable and it’s a relatable approach, but after several years and a growing stack of near-pristine textbooks, the desire for the ability to more fully express myself and play with my second language as much as I do with my first hasn’t lessened.
If anything, I’m now more exasperated with myself than those who tried to advise me. So, in the spirit of getting serious, I’m throwing down a gauntlet of the three most prominent Japanese-language tests, and then some, for myself and everyone else who has made the New Year’s resolution to learn Japanese this year. The tests may not help with spoken Japanese, but signing up can still provide motivation.
JLPT: The main one
The biannual Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is held in July and December and is touted as the most popular benchmark for folks in Japan and abroad searching for a goal to work toward in their personal studies or a certification to help them break into Japan’s workforce.
Exclusively multiple choice with no speaking or writing requirements, the JLPT is divided into five levels and is scored on a pass-fail point system. N5 and N4 cover basic kana, kanji and grammar points most common to everyday interactions, while N3 is the middle ground before the leap to N2 and N1’s battery of advanced kanji and technical understanding.
Test length and structure also vary depending on the level. N5, N4 and N3 are broken down into three sections: 25 to 30 minutes for vocabulary, 50 to 70 minutes on reading comprehension and 30 to 40 minutes devoted to listening. N2 and N1 both compress vocabulary and grammar into a single reading comprehension session lasting 105 and 110 minutes, respectively, with 50 minutes (N2) and 60 minutes (N1) for listening.
Applications open in April and September and can be submitted via snail mail or online by creating a MyJLPT account on the Japan Educational Exchanges and Services website.
The site doesn’t openly list a price for domestic applicants, but the most recent test, held on Dec. 2, was ¥5,500. The December test was also offered in all 47 prefectures.
Even if you’re in Japan for only a year or two, getting at least one level of JLPT certification can help you with job hunts when you go back home. When prospective employers see that you made the effort to engage with the community by trying to learn the language, it’ll only help in making your application stand out.
BJT: The business one
Rather than regurgitating vocabulary or phrases, the Business Japanese Proficiency Test (BJT) exists in order to gauge how well test takers can assess and respond to information in a work setting with individual analysis and opinions.
In total, there are 80 comprehension questions spread out across three sections: listening (45 minutes), listening and reading (30 minutes) and reading (30 minutes).
Final scores translate into a rank on a scale that ranges from the lowly J5, essentially a failing grade that declares a lack of ability to communicate in a Japanese workplace, to J1+, the highest rank that acknowledges the test taker can express themselves in any business situation.
In general, those who have passed N2 and N1 of the JLPT are the best candidates for this test (employers will sometimes ask hires to take the BJT as a more official progress report).
In terms of scheduling, the BJT is the most flexible of the tests featured because it’s administered electronically; applicants still need to take the exam at physical test sites, but they can apply for it and book a date up to the day before their test as long as there are open slots. This is all done through a third-party group, Pearson VUE, which is in charge of a slew of electronic tests.
Taking the BJT costs ¥6,999 (don’t ask me why they didn’t spare us all and round up) and it was offered in 20 cities across Japan as of last April.
Kanken: The kanji one
Formally known as the Japan Kanji Aptitude Test, the “Kanji Kentei” or “Kanken” comprises 12 levels of standardized tests designed to assess native Japanese speakers on their kanji knowledge from elementary school through university.
The lowest level only requires knowledge of 80 characters, but the fabled level 1 — a literary Mount Everest for both Japanese and non-Japanese kanji lovers alike — demands knowledge of around 6,000 characters. That is roughly three times the 2,000 characters needed to pass N1 of the JLPT.
Japanese listening and speaking skills don’t help much when it comes to deciphering kanji compounds, either. However, the major advantage of taking any level of Kanken — particularly for enthusiasts or those in writing-based careers — is that it forces you to take a Japanese approach to kanji as opposed to a Western one. The easiest example of this is learning a scattershot of kanji for the sake of expanding your vocabulary to fit a specific lesson (e.g. classroom items) versus learning multiple readings and the meaning behind each individual kanji to create a foundation that will help you decipher any words that may use that particular kanji down the road.
Tests for all levels take place in February, June and October throughout the country (unfortunately, the deadline for the February test has just passed — study up for summer!) and cost as little as ¥1,500 for levels 8 to 10 and a maximum of ¥5,000 for level 1. All of the tests are surprisingly compact, lasting only 40 minutes to an hour depending on the level.
School: The long-term one
Yes, the sticker shock of language school tuition can send people fleeing to Kinokuniya and resigning themselves to picking out a more affordable textbook that may or may not just end up sitting on the shelf (the Japanese word for this sort of stockpiling is “tsundoku“), but that’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it?
Depending on your learning style and the demands of work, returning to the classroom may be a better long-term investment in accountability and a way to immediately practice speaking with others in a structured, supportive environment.
With so many online and physical options, finding a program that fits your needs has become less daunting; courses can last anywhere between a month to two years depending on the school and program chosen, catering to both part-time learners and those who have chosen to study full-time on a student visa.
EJU and J-Test: The other ones
In addition to the three main tests, there are also a smattering of alternatives that may be more useful depending on your goals.
For students, the most notable is the Examination for Japanese University Admission for International Students (EJU) scheduled for June 16 and Nov. 10 — the application periods for both are Feb. 12 to March 8 and July 1 to 26, respectively. The EJU has largely replaced the JLPT as the new standard for international undergraduate and graduate students hoping to earn degrees in Japan.
There’s also the J-Test, which has a more detailed ranking system than the JLPT and also includes a writing component on top of the standard listening, grammar and vocabulary sections. The J-Test is offered over six weekends annually that are split into primary and secondary venues: Jan. 13, March 10, May 12, July 14, Sept. 8 and Nov. 3. A business-specific version of the exam is also offered three times a year on March 10, July 14 and Nov. 3. It’s too late to take the Jan. 13 test, but sign up by Feb. 13 to get in on the action for March.
Translation certification tests abound as well, but this is where it becomes more of a game of deciphering if these exams are designed to help translators or profit from them (Japan Translation Federation, why are you charging ¥10,000 for a test?), returning us to the dilemma of whether a slick piece of paper or practical experience is more valuable to you and potential employers.
Whether you’re studying to enhance your life and career in Japan, for the satisfaction of it or a synchronistic balance of both, what’s most important at the end of the day is if you’re pleased with what you’ve set out to do and why. New year, new me? All right, I’ll bite. Now I just have to work for it.