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…
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.
If you are thinking of sitting the JLPT 1 (now to be called the N1), there are a few things you should know first.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- Post Organisation
- Study Books
- Study Tips
- Wrap-ups & Tests
- Test Tips
- Section Breakdowns
- Conversation Partners
- Spreadsheet workflow
- Other 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.
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)
|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|
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.
|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|
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.
- 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!)
- 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)
|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|
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)”