How to pass the JLPT 1 – Part I

Prologue

This next series of posts is a little specific and I fear it might not be of interest to most of my general readers. But still, I know that some of you read this blog because you are either living in Japan, or interested in it in some way. It is my hope that the following might be of use to you. For the rest of you, fear not, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled posting shortly :)

[Jump to the table of contents] or read on…

JLPT 1

Introduction

The results for the Japanese Proficiency Exam (JLPT) Level 1 (the highest level) for last December were announced earlier this month, and I was delighted to see that I passed. I passed both the JLPT 1 and the JLPT 2 (which I sat back in 2008) each on my first try. I’m not particularly great at Japanese (I famously confused the words for “poop” and “bean jam” once, causing great consternation to the old woman staffing the bakery counter), but still passing both on your first try doesn’t seem to be a super common feat, especially for test-takers whose native language is English. When I was studying for the test, I remember googling for study strategies which others might have used. There are a few good resources out there, but I thought I would write up my take on it as well, for what it’s worth.

Notes

If you are thinking of sitting the JLPT 1 (now to be called the N1), there are a few things you should know first.

  1. Starting from June 2010, the structure of the JLPT has changed. What used to be called the JLPT 1 (JLPT 1級) has now become the “N1″. Since the first administration of this test will be from this year, nobody really knows what it’s going to be like. It is probably safe to assume that it will be very similar to the JLPT 1, but keep in mind that I sat the JLPT 1, so a few of my strategies might be slightly different. There is scant information about the N1 on the internet (obviously, since no one has taken it yet) but you can find some sample problems on the official site and some threads on it over on the JLPT study forum.
  2. While nobody will mistake me for a native speaker of Japanese, I have lived in Japan for several years at this point, work in an all-Japanese environment, and have no problems with daily life/conversation. If this description doesn’t apply to you – or if you live overseas and have no daily exposure to Japanese, you will likely have to study even harder than I did if you wish to pass the JLPT 1.
  3. If you’re thinking of sitting the JLPT 1, I highly recommend you sit the JLPT 2 first (or at the very least, make sure you can easily pass a JLPT 2 mock test). The JLPT 1 builds upon what you need to know for the JLPT 2 and if you don’t know the material for the latter (especially the grammar and kanji), it is unlikely you will be able to pass the former. (Unless you’re awesome. In which case, you probably can safely ignore this guide.) From a purely practical perspective as well, the materials you will study for the JLPT 2 are probably some of the most useful Japanese you will ever learn (particularly the grammar). I hardly encounter any of the JLPT 1 grammar in my everyday life, but not a day goes by that I’m not using at least a few of the things I learned for the JLPT 2.
  4. Passing the JLPT 1 requires a lot of effort. If you’re not willing to put in the time to bust your butt and study, you probably shouldn’t bother signing up for the test and wasting all the money on application fees and study materials. Japanese is a hard language and the JLPT 1 is a really hard test. For me, it took 2 months of straight studying to learn everything I needed to know to pass the test. This means that every weekend and every other weeknight after work I headed to the library or coffee shop with books in hand, while others were out having a good time. Being able to speak Japanese relatively well is not an automatic guarantee of being able to pass the JLPT 1 if you don’t also spend the time to study in an organized and effect manner, so it’s best to make your peace with that ahead of time.
  5. Passing the test also requires money. The test application fee is about $50 USD, but on top of that you will need to add the cost of study materials, mock/practice tests, and an electronic dictionary (at least if you do it the way I did). This comes up to not an insignificant chunk of change, though overall, it still came out cheaper than some other popular tests I have taken in the past (the LSAT, for example). In my estimation, I probably spent about $350 on this test: $200 for the electronic dictionary, about $70 on textbooks and practice tests, $50 on the test application fee, $15 on a Lego set I bought to reward myself after sitting it, and the remainder in coffee and the annualized cost to my sanity :) . Is it possible to pass the test using only free study materials and a paper dictionary? Perhaps, but you’d have to be a certain kind of persistent masochist to try to do that. I’d recommend saving your pennies and spending them on what you need to study effectively. It’s money well spent, and if you’re sitting the JLPT 1, I can only assume that you intend to use Japanese in the future, in which case the electronic dictionary will be one of the best investments you’ve ever made (that is, assuming you don’t have one already).

Keep reading after the jump.


Post Organization

Since there is a lot to get through, you can find the table of contents for this post below. Click on a link to jump directly to that section, or else just read through in order.

Note: This section will be updated as I finish writing the future sections.

Prologue
Introduction
Notes
Post Organisation
Materials
Study Books
Tests
Dictionary
Study Tips
  1. Starting Out
  2. Grammar
  3. Reading
  4. Listening
  5. Kanji/Vocabulary
Wrap-ups & Tests
Test Tips
General
Section Breakdowns

  1. Kanji/Vocabulary
  2. Listening
  3. Reading/Grammar
Other
Conversation Partners
Spreadsheet workflow
Memoribo
Software
Other materials

MATERIALS

There are three main things you need in terms of study materials and tools for the JLPT 1. They are: textbooks, practice/mock tests and electronic dictionary.

JLPT 1

Study Books

There seems to be two main types of study books people use for the JLPT 1. They are the Unicom series and the Kanzen Master (完全マスター) series. I have never used the former, so I will limit myself to talking about the latter.

At the 1kyu level, the Kanzen Master series offers 6 different study books, targeting the various sections of the test. They are (in descending order of necessity): 文法(Grammar), 読解(Reading), 語彙(Vocabulary), 漢字(Kanji), 聴解(Listening) and カタカナ(Katakana). Note that with the exception of the Vocabulary and Katakana books (which combine material for both the JLPT 1 and JLPT 2), the books come in different versions according to which test you are taking, so make sure to get the ones for the JLPT 1!

Of the five books listed above, I consider the first two (Grammar and Reading) to be absolute necessities. The vocabulary book is also very useful, and if you have the time, so is the kanji book. The only reason I don’t consider these to be absolute necessities is because you can often pick up much of the vocabulary and kanji you need for the JLPT 1 as you complete the Grammar and Reading books (as well as in the mock/practice tests). The only two books I don’t really recommend are the listening book and the katakana book. For the listening, it’s my opinion that one either knows how to listen or they don’t – I wonder how much one can really “study” for a listening exam. Of course, if you live abroad and don’t have any other exposure to spoken Japanese, you might get more utility out of it than I did. You should note, however, that you will get plenty of exposure to listening exams in the practice/mock tests you will take, (likely more than you will ever care to complete) so really, this book is a luxury. For the katakana book, it’s pretty much the most useless thing ever for native speakers of English since you can figure out the (very few) katakana terms that appear on the test simply by pronouncing them out loud slowly. Save your money.

In addition to the Kanzen Master JLPT 1 books, if you don’t already own it, I highly recommend purchasing the JLPT 2 version of the Kanzen Master Grammar (文法) text as well. You will need to know all the grammars contained within it like the back of your hand before sitting the test – the contents are not covered within the JLPT 1 Grammar book (they assume you already know them) so if you only study the JLPT 1 grammar and expect to pass the test, you’re in for a nasty surprise.

If you live in Japan, you can find these textbooks at most bookstores (if they’re out of stock they will gladly order them for you if you ask), or else on Amazon Japan. If you live overseas, you can usually get them from online importers, big Japanese bookstores like Kinokuniya, or else (sometimes) on Amazon.

I have made a chart below detailing the books in order of necessity and with links to where you can purchase them online (note that stock might vary and I can’t vouch for the quality of any of the sites below, they’re simply listed for your convenience)

Necessity Book Shops
High JLPT 1 Grammar: Amazon Japan Fuji-san Sasugabooks BeNippon
High JLPT 1 Reading: Amazon Japan Fuji-san BeNippon
High JLPT 2 Grammar: Amazon Japan Fuji-san Sasugabooks BeNippon
Medium JLPT 1/2 Vocabulary: Amazon Japan Fuji-san Sasugabooks BeNippon
Medium JLPT 1 Kanji: Amazon Japan Fuji-san Sasugabooks BeNippon
Low JLPT 1 Listening: Amazon Japan Japan Shop BeNippon
Low JLPT 1 Katakana: Amazon Japan Fuji-san Sasugabooks

Tests

In addition to the study books listed above, I also recommend buying both pasts tests(過去問題集) and mock tests(模擬試験). The difference between the two is that past tests are copies of the actual, official tests that were administered in previous years. Mock tests on the other hand, are made by third party companies and resemble what they (the companies) think the JLPT 1 will contain.

The advantages of the past exams is that being official past tests, if you take them under timed conditions, you can get a pretty good idea of how you will actually end up performing on the actual exam. The disadvantage is that they are relatively expensive, and you only get one at a time. Also, they are harder to get a hold of, especially for the older years, so you might have a hard time getting enough to study with (bookstores usually only carry the ones for the previous year’s administration, and for anything beyond that, you need to go scouring the intarwebs.

The advantage of the mock tests is that they are cheap and plentiful – you usually get four per book (depending on which one you get), including a listening CD, and they are usually easy enough to find (there are several companies that make them) both in bookstores and online. The disadvantage is that because they are not official exams, the degree to which they accurately reflect what you can expect to encounter on the test (as well as the quality of the actual exams themselves) varies depending on the company and year.

Both have their uses (I’ll go into them in greater detail in the Study Tips below) and I recommend buying at least 3 past tests, and 8 or so mock tests (total: some mock test books contain 4 tests in a single book). If you live in Japan, you can usually find them (or order them) at any bookstore, or else find them on Amazon Japan. If you’re overseas, you need to do some more looking, but you can usually find them at the same places as the textbooks above.

Exam Shops
Past Exam Amazon Japan 1 Amazon Japan 2 Japan Shop 1 Japan Shop 2
Mock Exam Amazon Japan 1 Amazon Japan 2 Japan Shop 1 Japan Shop 2

JLPT 1

Electronic Dictionary

One of the biggest problems with studying for the JLPT 1 is simply the sheer volume of material you need to learn. In order to do this effectively, you need to use focused studying techniques and manage your time efficiently. In practical terms, this means you can’t afford to let “dead time” (time when you’re not doing anything but can’t go anywhere for a while – a morning train commute, or waiting for a friend in a coffee shop, etc.) go to waste. Nor can you afford to waste time doing menial things that don’t directly contribute to your learning – stuff like writing flashcards, or more importantly, looking things up in a paper dictionary.

As anyone who has ever used a Japanese/English dictionary can attest, they are big, heavy and ridiculously cumbersome to use. This means that you are unlikely to bring them with you when you go out, (heaven help your back if you do) and they are an agonizing pain in the ass to look things up in – heaven help any poor souls who have shared my misery of flipping a page and seeing several dozen kanji you don’t know, realizing that you’re going to have to spend the better part of the next hour looking them up one stupid radical at a time in a paper dictionary.

The solution to both of these problems is an electronic dictionary. Whilst not so common outside Japan (here they are ubiquitous and even grade school children often carry them), taking the time to track one of these down will probably be the second best investment you ever make for this exam (besides the textbooks themselves). They are small and light (so you are likely to always carry them with you, enabling you to study during your “down time”) and – if you choose the right model – they are blindingly fast to use to look up kanji, enabling you to skip the stupid waste of time that are the radical/stroke-count indexes utilized within paper dictionaries.

The particular model I use is the “Caiso EX-Word XD-SF4800.” The Casio EX-Word line of electronic dictionaries is quite popular in Japan and can easily be found in most electronics retailers and some bookstores across the country (I got mine at Yodabashi Camera). There are other makers as well – Seiko, Sharp, Sony, etc.

For the most part, it doesn’t matter which dictionary you get so long as it has the following two functions: pen-based input, and a jump function. (and obviously, the four standard dictionaries: 和英(Japanese-English), 英和(English-Japanese), 漢和(Kanji Dictionary) and 和和(Japanese-Japanese). Most also include an 英英 (English-English) dictionary but this is obviously not so important for native-speakers of English.)

Whilst the full range of things you need to know when buying an electronic dictionary is somewhat outside the scope of this article, the reasoning behind the requirement for pen-based input and the jump function are as follows.

  1. The biggest problem non-native speakers of Japanese encounter is kanji they don’t know how to read. If you don’t know how to read a kanji and your dictionary is either paper-based, or lacks a pen-input, the only way you have to look it up is by using radical or stroke count indexes. Allow me to state, in no uncertain terms, that this sucks butt. It is slow and horrible and will have you stabbing yourself in the face before you know it. But if your dictionary has a touch panel which can accept pen-based input, you can simply look at the kanji and write it directly into the screen. This is about a million times faster and is quite intuitive – even if you don’t know the radical or pronunciation of a kanji, anyone can look at it and just copy it onto the screen. Since you will encounter hundreds of unknown characters over the course of your studies, this will easily save you days of wasted time (looking things up in indexes takes forever). Do not – repeat, do not – buy an electronic dictionary without this function. It’s like throwing your money away. 
(Note that native Japanese speakers may not realize what a life-saver this function is for foreigners, and if you ask them for advice (or ask a Japanese salesperson), they may treat it as a novelty. Consider, however, that Japanese people have spent 16 years of their lives learning all 2200 joyo kanji by heart, so they can simply type the kanji into the keyboard phonetically. But for you, far from being a novelty, this should be the feature you look for in a dictionary!)
  2. The “jump” function lets you highlight any word or kanji and then cross-reference it in another dictionary. So for example, if you look up a word in the English-Japanese dictionary, you will get how to say it in Japanese. But what if you don’t know how to read the kanji for that word? With a jump function, you simply highlight the word, and then “jump to” (cross-reference it in) the Japanese-Japanese dictionary, which will tell you the reading for that kanji in hiragana. Very useful and quite a timesaver (without it, you’d have to write down the kanji on a scrap piece of paper and then manually re-look it up in the Japanese-Japanese dictionary later).

There’s a wide range of electronic dictionaries to choose from, so it’s hard to give one particular recommendation. Most of the dictionaries containing the two functions above should serve you well, and can often be found from online importers overseas, or else from Amazon Japan. It’s not necessary to splurge for ultra-high end models – usually these just contain a bunch more English dictionaries (useless to you, as native-speakers of English), specialized dictionaries like medical reference books, etc., and/or superfluous features of questionable utility (colour screens, built in TVs, ability to play .mp3s, etc.)

Here are a few models that I picked out at random that should serve you well. Obviously I can only personally vouch for my Casio EX-Word XD-SF4800, having not used the other, but I imagine they’d be just as good. Note that being electronic equipment, this section is liable to go out of date quickly as new models are introduced. Also, I’ve noticed that the price on the import shops listed below is dramatically higher than the retail price in Japan/on Amazon.jp so if you’re shopping from overseas, it might be worthwhile to see if you can have a friend in Japan buy and ship it to you. (Also, the shops here are listed for your convenience only – I’ve never used any of them before so I have no idea if they’re on the up and up or not)

Model Store
Casio EX-Word XD-SF4800 Amazon Japan Kakaku
Casio Ex-Word XD-GP6900 Amazon Japan Japan Direct Goods from Japan
Sharp Papyrus PW-AT790 Amazon Japan Kakaku Japan Direct
Canon WordTank V320Amazon JapanKakakuJapan Direct

EPILOGUE

Okay that’s it for this post. Stay tuned for parts II and III soon!

Now listening to: “Nipsey Hussle – Gangsta’s Life (feat. Snoop Dogg)”

69 Reactions

  1. JLPT

    The JLPT has always been a killer exam. I am curious about the new level 3.
    All the best to those taking the JLPT this year

  2. Allyson

    Thanks for the great tips. I passed the 2級 two years ago but put study on hold trying to finish my Master’s. Whenever I pick up the study books I feel overwhelmed by how many words I don’t know. Do you have a way to tackle that? Should I study kanji first or vocabulary?

  3. Michaelpanda

    @Allyson: Congratulations on passing 2kyu! That’s quite an accomplishment! I understand your feeling when you talk about being overwhelmed by all the words one needs to know to pass the JLPT 1. I’m going to write a second part to this post one of these days, or else, you can drop me an e-mail and I’ll mail you with the basic outline of how I studied for 1kyu.

  4. Tokyo Potato

    I stumbled onto your blog via Google. I’m heading to Japan next week to study the language for three weeks from scratch. I think your recommendation on an electronic dictionary fantastic. I never thought any of those would be any good only because I didn’t know pen-input existed.
    This might be kind of a stretch, but do you happen to know if any of those dictionaries also do Chinese as well? I’m trying to become Trilingual. I figure knowing the Kanji gets me a leg up in Chinese as I wouldn’t have to start completely from scratch.

  5. Michaelpanda

    @Tokyko Potato: I’m glad this post was useful to you! Regarding Chinese-Japanese-English electronic dictionaries, yes, there are several of those as well. They are generally more expensive than the basic English-Japanese only ones: around 30,000~40,000 yen from what a cursory glance on the internet shows. You can walk into any major electronics retailer (Yodobashi Camera, Yamada Denki, Bic Camera, etc.) and ask them to show you the models with Chinese-language support. Realise that these are geared towards Japanese learners of Chinese, so the glosses are likely to be ChineseJapaneseEnglish. In other words, I’m not sure if you can find a ChineseEnglish dictionary in there or not (you may have to translate from Chinese to Japanese then the Japanese to English, yielding … questionable results). But I’ve never used one, so this is just speculation. A quick glance on the internet yielded the Casio XD-GW7350 (http://bit.ly/d5GSOg ) and AD-7300BS (http://bit.ly/c2TvhF ). There are many more models out there, so do some comparison shopping. Good luck with your studies! Where in Japan will you be?

  6. Deepak sharma

    Hi, 4th july, jlpt exam… I took the N3 exam and its quit different… I think its a wonder idea to intoduce N3 and it will be very usefull to people who will going to take N2…But i am quiet confused about the prepration of N2… My main question is “how to prepare for the N2 exam”… give some tips to increase grammar, kanji& listening…. Goood luck… Thank’s

  7. Wiseguy

    Sitting for the N1 this December and wanted to get your opinion: Do you think it’s worthwhile to plow through a kanji dictionary, making/memorizing flashcards for each of the 1,945 characters? I’m at a fairly advanced level, having majored in Japanese in college, but somehow I never really settled on a good kanji learning method. I’m using the Kanzen master books too…the alternative would be to just focus entirely on those and learn the kanji that come up as I go through them.
    I have the time and energy to go all out on this, but I want to be effective.

  8. Wiseguy

    Sitting for the N1 this December and wanted to get your opinion: Do you think it’s worthwhile to plow through a kanji dictionary, making/memorizing flashcards for each of the 1,945 characters? I’m at a reasonably advanced level, having majored in Japanese in college, but somehow I never really settled on a good kanji learning method. I’m using the Kanzen master books too…the alternative would be to just focus entirely on those and learn the kanji that come up as I go through them.
    I have the time and energy to go all out on this, but I want to be effective.

  9. Michaelpanda

    @Wiseguy Sorry I never finished the last two parts of this series (but I will soon, I promise!). Basically I didn’t memorise anywhere near all 1945 characters for the test (since the way they test it, rote memorisation won’t really help you anyway) The way I studied is this: Anytime I read or studied anything for the JLPT (the grammar and reading sections especially) I always had a highlighter pen with me. I highlighted ANY kanji or grammar patterns I didn’t know. Then, after I finished each section, I would go back through and look up the kanji that I didn’t know and I would put them in a list and study those. Then, those kanji that kept cropping up, when I would see them in later sections, I would find that I already knew them. Those that only appear once or twice, you end up not really remembering (since you’ll probably forget you already highlighted them and highlight them again in the later section) but that’s okay. This way you remember the most common kanji and kanji compounds (and grammar) which are used the most, allowing you to focus your limited time and energies on those, whilst not bothering with the ones you rarely see. (remember, there’s no real way to tell what the reading section topics will be or what kanji will appear for sure on the kanji section – so there will always be “new” kanji or “technical” kanji you couldn’t have prepared for on the test itself – but that’s okay, you can miss a few as long as you know the more useful kanji which have cropped up time and time again during your studies.
    If you e-mail me (admin – at – (michaelpanda) – dawt – com ) (or just look on the contact page) I can send you a copy of an e-mail containing more detailed study advice for kanji and grammar memorisation which I wrote for a friend (and which will form the basis for the next part of this JLPT blog post when I get around to it). In short, I wouldn’t waste time memorising all the joyo kanji. There’s no point and you won’t really respond well that way – better to be able to really KNOW and be able to USE the majority of commonly appearing kanji like the back of your hand. Once you check how they ask the kanji questions in the JLPT 1-kyu (or N1) you’ll see why it’s better to be able to USE the kanji than just memorise all of them.

  10. Eveningking

    Hey MichaelPanda!
    Thank you so much for this kind of tutorial. I searched for good mock tests for ages! And I trust in ur opinion so I’m gonna buy them next month.
    Everyone who takes the test, good luck!
    P.s. Your fotos are so cute (and I love love love the dictionary) but what ist the charakter called? (these tiny figures) = D

  11. Michaelpanda

    @EveningKing
    My pleasure! I hope that this guide was of use to you – I recently updated with a Part II here:
    http://www.michaelpanda.com/blog/2010/09/how-to-pass-the-jlpt-1—part-ii.html
    which you might want to take a look at if you have a chance.
    About the photos: his name is Capybara-san (you can google for him in Japanese as カピバラさん and it should come up) – he’s so cute, right? This series of characters is super popular in Japan right now. It’s actually based on a real animal, which I’ve visited before:
    http://www.michaelpanda.com/blog/2010/04/capybara-time.html
    http://www.michaelpanda.com/blog/2010/04/capybara-onsen.html
    Good luck with your test!

  12. pori

    Hi,
    your method is quite unique to everything I’ve read so far and I’m quite interesting in trying it out. I guess you must be busy what with working in a Japanese company and all, but please if you have time update this guide… It’s really well written and informative. I feel like I’ve gotten half way through an interesting book and now can’t finish it! Haha… Actually, I’d like to know more about the spreadsheets mainly. After inputting all the unknown vocab etc, what did you do? Just look over the printed out spreadsheets? What about flashcards? Did you only write unknown words/kanji, what about sentences you didn’t understand properly? Thanks.

  13. Michaelpanda

    @Pori:
    Hello! Yes, I’m so sorry, I know I’m really really behind at posting updates to this. I feel terrible because it’s really bad of me to start something and then leave it unfinished.
    Please wait – I’m going to try to update part III by next week! I’m working on it now :)

  14. Lindsay

    I just finished reading through the entire JLPT series of posts – amazing stuff, thank you for sharing your method! I passed level 2 a few years ago and I’m thinking of sitting for the N1 in the next year or so, although I have to say the jump from 2 to 1 is hugely intimidating. Also, just a thought for those out there who are looking for a way around buying a $500 electronic dictionary with stylus imput – the iPhone and iPad now support some great programs ($10-20) that allow you to draw unknown kanji and link to definitions, example sentences, etc. I’ve used Midori, but there are plenty out there. Just a thought if you already have one of those devices and are looking to save a few hundred dollars.
    Thanks again!

  15. Bell

    Is your link to the Listening Kanzen series accurate? It seems to take us to JLPT2 Kanji Book.
    Thank you for the site, Really appreciate all the effort you put into sharing with us how you passed it :)

  16. Michael Panda

    Hi Lindsay!
    Thank you for your comment! Yes indeed, the iphone/ipad have tons of great apps for learning Japanese – in particular I remember using kanjibox for training kanji (makes studying kanji about as fun and painless as can be :) ). It’s amazing how much can change in only a few short years – if only they’d had those when I was studying for the JLPT!
    Good luck with your studies!

  17. Michael Panda

    Hi Bell!
    Unfortunately it seems like the listening book is no longer available. For what it’s worth, it really isn’t all that essential – the mock/practise test collections all have CDs with them which recreate the listening portion of the test, so you could rely on those instead of hunting down the listening book.
    Actually most of the books in these posts could use some updating – the core Kanzen Master grammar, kanji and reading books will continue to be invaluable but seeing as how the JLPT has been using the “new” system for several years now, it probably wouldn’t hurt to take a look at some of the newer textbooks that have come on the market in recent years.
    If I have time (oh if only…) I’ll try to make a follow up post sometime!
    Good luck with your studies!!!

  18. phonebook

    Oh my goodness! a wonderful post dude. Thanks a ton But My corporation
    is experiencing trouble with ur rss . Dont be acquainted with why Can not join it.
    Possibly there is anyone finding the identical rss difficulty Anybody who knows kindly respond.
    Thnkx