How to pass the JLPT 1 – Part IV

Oh hay, we’re back with another installment of my how to pass the JLPT I series. Goodness, I’d better get on the ball if I ever hope to finish this up! Anyway, if you’re new to this series, you can check out the other posts or else see the table of contents.

So last time I talked about passing the listening portion, and today I’m going to talk about the Kanji/Vocabulary section. Are you ready? Let’s go :)

random image for j00r enjoyment

Yet another unrelated image for your pleasure because photo-less entries make me sad


Before we begin, some disclosure. I dislike kanji. I consider them a necessary evil and I’m not one of those people who are fascinated by them, who study them for fun (I used to work with a person like that… her enthusiasm for them was…. disturbing) or who would ever consider getting a kanji tattoo (please don’t do that). So I approached this portion of the exam with a sense of palpable resignation.

That having been said, I’ve always been fairly decent at reading kanji (writing is another story), and breezed through the kanji portion of the JLPT II without a problem. So I thought to myself “Hey, the kanji section on the JLPT I is probably pretty easy too, right?” If you’re sitting this exam, you’re probably thinking the same thing too. After all, you don’t even need to write the kanji, just read them. How hard can it be?

Stop right now. Listen to me. The kanji section on the JLPT I is hard. It is really hard. Do not sleep on this ish. To paraphrase Ice Cube: “You better check yo’self before you wreck yo’self.” You’re gonna need to study pretty intensely if you want to pass the kanji section of the JLPT I, my friends, so leave yourself plenty of time. (If you’re Chinese, or otherwise intimately familiar with kanji, then feel free to skip this section of my guide, and oh, I hate you).

So how to study? If you’re here looking for nifty tricks like mnemonic devices or fancy illustrations ostensibly derived from kanji radicals to help you, then I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. There are only two main ways in which I’ve studied kanji: by reading them in context (in novels, newspapers, during the course of daily life or else at work) and also by brute force baby (break out a piece of paper and start writing them beasts out over and over and over (and over) again). I used both ways when studying for the JLPT I kanji section, so that’s what I’ll talk about. If you want to use pretty pictures or mnemonics you’re welcome to, but I don’t have any particular advice for you.

(Article continues after the Keep Reading link below…)

Studying the kanji in context is pretty essential, because if you just look up a bunch of kanji in a book or chart or whatever, it’s hard to get a sense of the onyomi (yes, it’s written, but there are so many of them per kanji that you won’t actually get a sense of which are common readings and which are rare readings, since they are given equal footing when listed in study books). Also, by reading kanji in context you learn what compounds they usually appear in, and since you will be tested extensively on kanji in compounds during the JLPT, it pays to be familiar with them. Conversely, while there are a few straight up: “Here’s a kanji, tell me the kunyomi” type of problems, you can probably count the number of them on one hand – the rest is kanji in compounds and that means knowledge of the various onyomi.

The best way to study the kanji in compounds is … are you ready? Yup, you guessed it – the spreadsheets you should have been compiling when studying for the reading and grammar sections. If you’ve been following my advice about highlighting and inputing every unfamiliar kanji/word you run across during the study of those sections, by now you should have a pretty extensive list of kanji to work from (and inherently, context and example sentences, since that’s how you ran across them in the first place). For the record, this is sample of how I have a few random rows of my spreadsheet set up.

金融機関 きんゆうきかん: financial institution/bank
希少 きしょう[の]: scarce/rare ; 希少価値: scarcity value
備える そなえる: to prepare/make provisions (for); to furnish/equip (with/for); to provide (for/against)
賛否両論 さんぴりょうろん: arguments for & against/pros & cons/mixed reception
設備 せつび: equipment; facilities (for)/accommodations

The example above illustrates a few conventions that I followed:

  1. There are only two columns. The kanji/compound in the first column and reading+meaning (and examples) in the right.
  2. There are no commas used anywhere. This is important because it will let us export to a CSV file easily, for reasons I’ll discuss below.
  3. For things like adjectives, etc. that take an additional particle (の/な/etc.), I put that in a bracket after the reading (row #2 above, for example).
  4. For words with multiple definitions I separate related but slightly different definitions with a slash “/”, and unrelated definitions with a semi-colon “;” (row #3 above, for example)
  5. I have both single kanji words and compounds mixed together, with no real separation between kun and onyomis. You have to be able to read everything, so why bother with artificial distinctions?

The above guidelines help instill a certain degree of “scanability” to the list, which I aimed to make as information dense and brief as possible since, as mentioned, there are tons of kanji to learn. The exact english definitions are not so important – just the briefest nuggets to help you remember generally what kanji mean (which you should pick up from the context you originally saw them in anyway) – what we’re really after is being able to recognise and read each kanji.

Now you can just print out these spreadsheets and carry them around with you to study when you get a chance, and that will work pretty well. When I study that way, I would set out, say, a page at a time, then start at the top and just look through them one at a time, memorising the reading, trying to remember the meaning, basically just getting them in my mind.

Then I would take a piece of paper and cover up the right-hand column, then go from the top to the bottom and see if I could remember the meaning and the reading. If I remembered it without a problem I went on to the next one, if I had problems, I’d make a small circle in pencil next to the kanji, then look at the answer, try to memorise it, and move on to the next one. On the next read-through I’d start at the top and read down to the bottom again – if I messed up one marked with a circle I’d put a double-circle next to it – this means that this is a trouble kanji for me and I’d later excerpt it to a special “intense-study” chart. If I got it right during the next couple of read-throughs I’d erase the circle (since it means I basically knew it).

It’s important to note that for this study method to be effective, you need to repeat it over the course of a few days to make sure that the kanji are sticking with you – anybody can remember something they just looked at 5 minutes prior and regurgitate it – the question is whether you can still remember the readings and meanings a day or two later after you first studied them. So make sure to keep studying and marking with circles the same kanji over and over again (I usually gave about 3 days to each “page”, then switched to a new page…. making sure to go back to previously studied pages every once in a while to ensure I retained the knowledge, marking with circles any that I couldn’t remember, etc.) You can also “switch it up” by covering up the left hand side and seeing if you can remember the kanji that go with a given reading or meaning – this means you’ll need to write it which is quite useful in real life, but if your only purpose is to pass the JLPT I and you have limited time and resources to do it in, you may wish to skip this part (or at least de-emphasize it) as you aren’t tested on your ability to write the kanji, only read them/understand their meaning.

Now, that having been said, there are some disadvantages to carrying around a worksheet and studying it like this, namely that you can’t change the order of the kanji, and soon you will find yourself unconsciously memorising the order of the kanji, and their meanings, and not the kanji themselves. In other words, what your brain is inputting is “on this page, the answers are “きんゆうきかん”, “きしょう”, “そなえる”, “さんぴりょうろん” and “せつび” in order” (i.e. basically an ordered list of readings with no connection to the actual kanji) which is no good, because if you were to be given the kanji “金融” randomly on a test, you might not be able to read it (since it’s out of the order you memorised it in).

The best way to avoid memorising things in a list-like fashion and emphasize the connection between kanji and reading/meaning is to of course use flashcards. The thing about flashcards is that a) they are super bulky (try carrying around a keyring of 200 flashcards and you’ll soon see what I mean) and b) they are a huge pain in the ass and take forever to make. Remember what I said about trying to use your time efficiently. You don’t have a lot of time to waste on stuff that won’t directly contribute to your learning (the physical process of writing out flash cards yields very little learning, but takes a disproportionately large amount of time and resources which would be better devoted to actual studying). And you already took the time to take information from an analogue medium (the highlighted words in your textbooks) and put it in a digital medium (the spreadsheet), so why undo all your hard work (and the advantages of digital data) by reconverting it to another analogue medium (flashcards)?

One of the primary advantages of having data in a spreadsheet is that you can easily export it to a Comma-Separated Values format, which is a highly-portable, generic data format that you can use to transfer your data to a variety of different services or devices. I know there are sites online that will let you upload CSV files to a server and will automatically parse it and output a PDF of pre-formatted flashcards which you can just print out and use. You can also use the form-letter/data-merge functions of Microsoft Word, for example, to take your exported CSV data file and use it to automatically spit out a document of flashcards which you can just print and cut apart. If you know what you’re doing, you can easily make hundreds of flashcards from start to finish in about 15 minutes (including the time to print and cut them beasts apart (hint: use a paper cutter)) – try doing the same thing by hand and it will likely take you most of the day and you’ll probably want to kill yourself at the end of it.

For me, I wanted to get around using paper flashcards all together because they’re bulky, so I went with a Memoribo, which is basically a simple electronic device that accepts text or CSV files, and then displays them as flashcards or straight text (you can choose). So I would load a CSV list of my kanji from above, and then when you start the device it shows the kanji and you test yourself to see if you remember the reading/meaning (just as with a regular flashcard) – if you want to see the answer you just press a button and it “flips” it to the back, showing you the reading and meaning (this is why it’s important not to have any commas in the second column because it would break the CSV format otherwise). You can then just click forward or backward to move through the cards, etc.

The memoribo is cheap, simple and super rugged (I would just throw it in my bag whenever without worrying about it getting ruined) and runs forever on a single button battery. It’s also dedicated to a single purpose which helps you focus, and you can carry thousands and thousands of flash cards on a device not much bigger than two packs of gum side-by-side. I’m not quite sure how you can buy one if you’re not living in Japan (but I’m sure some googling will reveal an importer or two) but if you can lay hands on one, I highly recommend it!

(Apropos the above, here is a hands-on review of the Memoribo by another blogger that seems to share my opinion of them.)

And that’s just about it for the actual studying – nothing fancy, as you can see, just straight brute-force memorisation and drilling with flash cards. No crazy “kanji pictures” or mnemonics, or other inane “gimmicks” you see in all those books that purport to make kanji “easy and fun” for Westerners to learn.


Before moving on to the vocabulary section, there are two more brief things I’d like to say about the kanji-studying spreadsheets. First, as I mentioned, over time I would come up with a list of kanji that have circles or double-circles next to them. These were my “trouble kanji” and I would eventually take them and make one more list, which I called my “intense study” list – I would print this list out and study it hard-core until I knew everything on it. It’s important to continuously filter-down and focus your studying efforts so that you catch and remedy things you don’t know. If you don’t actively identify, chase down and learn kanji you can’t read, you’re just wasting time and effort with your studying, because come test time you’ll be as clueless as when you first encountered them. So be vigilant in this respect.

The second thing has to do with similar-looking kanji. After a while of scanning through your list, you are certain to find several kanji that “look alike.” One example off the top of my head is:

備える そなえる: to prepare/make provisions (for); to furnish/equip (with/for); to provide (for/against)
捕まる つかまる: to catch (by someone/a taxi/etc.); to arrest
補う おぎなう: to supplement (x with y); to make up for ~
うら: a bay/an inlet

Now these clearly all resemble each other (only differing in the left radical), but their meanings and readings are drastically different. This goes double for their onyomi – the JLPT kanji section has quite a few questions where they will purposely give you similar-looking, but incorrect kanji in the answer choices in an attempt to fool you:

Q: 総選挙で10人のこうほしゃが立った.
A: 1) 候備者 2) 候捕者 3) 候補者 4) 候浦者

And so on. I found it useful when studying to identify “similar” kanji (at least to my mind) and group them together in the spreadsheet, so I could later excerpt them out into a “look-alikes” spreadsheet and study them carefully to memorise their differences. This is the one (very limited) case where I found mnemonics to be of some use – to this day I still remember 備える means “to equip” by thinking of the radical 「亻」(にんべん) as a spear, as in “Guards are equipped with spears”, for example. Your mileage, I suppose, may vary.


Okay, enough about kanji. So of all the sections, my studying advice is probably the most suspect for the vocabulary section because I kind of just half-assed it. I bought a book but I hardly had time to use it, simply because of the overwhelming amount of material there is to know. In a perfect world, one would pass this section of the test by actually having a massive vocabulary, but if you’re like me and actually have a full-time job and something to do with your life besides study Japanese, you may not find yourself with enough time to get that giganto vocabulary of your dreams.

The main issue you’ll run into with the vocabulary section is that the material can literally be drawn from any word in the Japanese language – and that, my friends, is a a lot of words. Contrast this, for example, to the relatively limited pool of material for the grammar section. Furthermore, unlike the istening, reading and kanji sections, there’s not a whole lotta context to draw from to figure out the answers. In the vocabulary section, if you don’t know a word, you’re pretty much screwed.

Here’s a sample problem from a past test. Which sentence uses the term below correctly?:


  1. 彼は今も働かずに、毎日毎日ちやほやしている。
  2. 最近、犯人らしい人物をちやほや見かけます。
  3. 彼女はきれいなので、男の人からちやほやされる。
  4. 雪がちやほやと降ってきた。

Now basically either you know the term ちやほや or you can’t answer this question. Often they purposely choose not to write words using their kanji (which would give you a clue as to their meaning) to makei t harder, and there’s nothing you can do to try and gain an insight into each word. If you don’t know the right answer off hand, the best you can hope for is that you know or sure the meanings of one or two of the incorrect terms, leaving you with a 50/50 toss up between the remaining choices. Fun, eh?

Now before I get into my half-assed approach to this, let me reiterate something. If you have the time, by far the best way to pass this section is to study hard and build a huge vocabulary. This is, after all, what learning is, and it’ll help you, you know, actually improve your Japanese. :) But, if you’re like me and consider Japanese a necessary evil, and have better things to do (like work to earn enough to live) than devote your life to study all day long, then read on.

The primary consideration is that the vocabulary section is, in my opinion, the hardest to effectively study for, the least responsive in terms of returns-for-your-time, and worth the least of all the parts of the test (remember, it’s just 1/2 of a section, shared with kanji). Accordingly, if you’re working with limited time and resources, you probably should place the lowest priority on this part of the test.

In my case, I had a decent general vocabulary before I began studying, which helps. If you follow my advice of highlighting unknown words you run across when studying the reading and grammar sections and turning them into spreadsheets to study, then you’ll boost your base vocabulary by a certain small amount as well (I found that much to my surprise, that while the words in these spreadsheets were extremely useful for improving my reading and kanji comprehension and scores, they were actually not all that useful in boosting my vocabulary score, ironically enough). However, this alone is not enough, if for no other reason than the words that appear in the vocabulary section are relatively “unique” to this part of the test. In other words, whilst knowing 金融 means financial institution will be quite useful to you in kanji (where it might well appear as a question), and in reading (where it will help you read more quickly and effectively), and perhaps even in the grammar section, the odds of 金融 showing up in the vocabulary section are pretty damn low.

So what does show up? How about stuff like this?

赤ちゃんは、まだ(  )眠っています。

  1. ぎっしり
  2. ぐっすり
  3. ぐったり
  4. ぎっくり

サウナに入ると、汗がたくさん出て、体が(  )。

  1. さっぱりする
  2. すっきりする
  3. ゆったりする
  4. あっさりする

Oh happy days are here.

Now if you’re studying for 1kyuu, chances are you’ve heard all of the above before. But do you know, intimately the differences between each one? Or do you, much like I used to (and still occasionally do), fudge them in in conversation or when you hear them, sometimes saying すっかりとする when you meant to say すっきりとする but really, it’s kind of all the same in your head, you know what you meant to say right? and what’s one single letter difference anyway?

Not gonna cut it anymore, I’m afraid. They love these stupid adverbs (and adjectives, to a lesser extent) in the vocabulary section, and you’re going to need to learn them, and learn them well if you want to pass. There’s no kanji, no context, no nothing to help you figure them out, as previously noted. You just need to know them, by rote, brute memorisation if necessary.

The way I chose to deal with this is I went through the vocabulary sections of all the past tests, all the sample problems, all the mock exams, and I made (ready?) another spreadsheet, this one dedicated only to vocabulary words. I actually made two spreadsheets – one for adverbs and onomatopoeia like the above, and another for just general vocab (which I later merged with my kanji sheet, since that one was basically vocab anyway). Then I started drilling the heck out of them (using the memoribo from above as well). I found it very useful to use the circle/double circle and “intense study” list method from above in the vocabulary, since there were some words which I knew quite well (すっきり、すっぱい for example) and others that I would consistently mess up (ぐったり and ぎっくり for example), and it was necessary to focus my studying efforts accordingly.

Outside of the vocab sections from the past/mock exams, sample problems and whatever small contributions made from the spreadsheets from the grammar/reading/kanji section, I didn’t really study much else for the vocabulary section. As mentioned, I got the book, but I didn’t have enough time to do it, and the book had just too much material for me to get through with my limited time and resources. My reasoning for taking all the vocab from the past and mock tests is that I figured that if I learned all of them (In the end it was about 15+ tests worth), then that, combined with my current vocabulary, should be enough to pass the vocabulary section of the test.
Additionally, 15 tests worth of vocabulary section is a large, but quite manageable and more importantly, finite amount of material to deal with. You can easily look at a spreadsheet of 15 tests worth of vocab, say to yourself “okay, so I need to make it through x-amount of vocabulary items, and I have y-weeks to do it in. Here’s my schedule.” which is much more reassuring in psychological terms than going “…so I need to memorise every single word in the Japanese language for the vocabulary section of the test, and I only have y-weeks to do it in.” Believe me, the latter will drive you crazy, the former is a tangible, easily-conquerable goal.

It turns out my theory was right – a lot of the vocab items from past/mock tests and sample problems turned up on the actual exam – there are, after all, only so many commonly-used adverbs – and by focusing my efforts on only those that had been used before and thus were likely to show up again, I could more effectively utilise my time to pass what I considered a low-priority part of the test. Since the score on the vocabulary is combined with the kanji score to get the overall section score, you don’t necessarily need to knock it out of the park as long as you’re confident in your kanji ability (which I consider much easier to study for and providing a much higher return on study time invested, along with a chance to figure out kanji even if you’ve never seen them before on the test).

So yeah. That’s how I “studied” for the vocab section. Kind of half-assed, but it worked. One last thing before I finish up: if you’re going to do it this way, it is imperative that you have enough past/mock tests and sample problems to work from! Only a couple of tests isn’t going to cut it! If a vocab item was used in the past couple of years, for example, it’s a pretty solid bet that it’s not going to show up again on the test this year! So you need to have lots of tests, preferably going back a few years, to draw from. I think I ended drawing on about 15 tests worth of material (remember, one mock test book collection usually has about 4 tests in it, and the past test booklets sometimes have two tests in them, depending on the format) and that seemed to work for me. If you have a lesser starting general vocabulary, then you’ll need more tests, if your vocab is kick ass, then less, I suppose.


Okay, that’s it for now. Thanks for reading! I’ll put up the next section one of these days (probably some unrelated picture posts first though, since I figure I’ve bored my normal readers long enough with all this JLPT-specific stuff) but if you have any questions, please feel free to mail me or post them in the comments!

Now listening to: Diddy & Dirty Money – Coming Home (feat. Sasha Grey)

56 Reactions

  1. To Ky O BLi NG

    Wow. Your post summarized exactly why I have no intention of ever taking that test. I would fail so miserably I would probably never be able to speak Japanese again.
    Hope you did well though.

  2. Michael Panda

    Thanks man!
    Actually I passed it a few years ago ;) Am thinking of challenging the kanji kentei next year though!

  3. Phoenix

    I would also recommend the computer program “Anki” – it lets you make flashcards, which you can upload to their website and review on any computer OR EVEN use in iPhone/iPad apps or on your internet-enabled cell phone. Of course you can always review them on your laptop as well. I used this program to study for the BJT several years ago and it was a life (and paper) saver.