Part 1: What is the JLPT and why is the failure rate so high?

What is this guide?

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This is the only guide you’ll ever need to read about the JLPT.

This is part 1 of 4. It covers what the JLPT is, if it’s worth taking in your situation, and why so many students struggle to pass it.

This guide is split into 4 parts, discussing the following topics:

  1. What is the JLPT and why is the failure rate so high? (← You are here)
  2. Your JLPT study plan
  3. Native materials study plan for passing the JLPT
  4. Passing the JLPT

Below is an overview of your entire study journey when using this guide along with general timelines.

If you’re going to follow this guide, please give all of the parts a look. Feel free to glance at this summary to get an idea of what it’ll all look like, though:

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Summary of your study plan and timeline:

NativShark Milestones 1-6 (First ~4 months):
30-40 minutes a day, extra time goes into new Units in NativShark as long as reviews are under control.

Do 5-6 new Units a week, with 1-2 days of review only (this pace is ideal for all parts of this study plan, so we’d recommend sticking with it).

Remember that the kana tool can be reviewed outside of your normal studies so feel free to do that especially as you’re getting used to them.

NativShark Milestones 6-10 (months 4~7):
Maintain 30-40 minutes a day in NativShark, 5-6 new Units per week with 1-2 review-only days.

Integrate native materials into your study days, starting small and building up to an hour of native materials every day.

NativShark studies should always be done before native materials.

NativShark Milestone 10+ (~month 7+):
Maintain 30-40 minutes a day in NativShark, 5-6 new Units per week with 1-2 review-only days.

Do about an hour of native materials each day. All extra study time should be spent using native materials.

Be sure to do enjoyable material as well so study time can naturally extend beyond this hour when the schedule permits. More study time = higher chance of passing the JLPT when the time comes^^

3 months before taking either test:
Begin using test prep if you choose to do so. Extend study time and try not to replace more than 20 minutes of your current study time with this (you can try to get through NativShark faster to save some time, but be sure to still stay on pace with doing new Units).

Milestone 26-32 (2 years):
You’re ready to take the JLPT N2. Since you have to sign up 3 months in advance, feel free to sign up if you are past Milestone 23.

Milestone 41-49 (3 years):
You’re ready to take the JLPT N1. Since you have to sign up 3 months in advance, feel free to sign up if you are past Milestone 38.

Good luck!!

Don’t worry, that plan isn’t as scary as it seems, and we can adjust as appropriate.

Let’s start from the beginning:

What is the JLPT?

JLPT is short for the “Japanese Language Proficiency Test”.

This test is designed for non-native speakers learning Japanese and is meant to certify a person’s Japanese ability based on standardized criteria.

Passing the JLPT gets you a certification, which can be a deciding factor for getting a job in Japan. It can also be considered when applying for a visa to work in Japan. (Note that all of this depends on the type of job. Most specialized jobs will require some level of the JLPT.)

The JLPT has 5 levels, called the “N5, N4, N3, N2, and N1”, going from most beginner to most advanced.

You can sign up for any level you want and do not have to take them in any specific order. This means you can take the N1, the most advanced level, right off the bat if you feel your abilities are at that level.

In Japanese, the JLPT is known as the 日本語にほんご能力のうりょく試験しけん. For the test levels in Japanese, the kanji きゅう is used instead of the letter N, so you’ll see “5きゅう, 4よんきゅう, 3さんきゅう, 2きゅう, and 1いっきゅう,” instead.

The JLPT is held once or twice a year depending on your location, and is the most widely recognized method of quickly judging a person’s Japanese ability for applications mostly in the workplace or for visa consideration.

That said, it is not a good judge of a person’s true Japanese proficiency and functional ability, as it does not test production skills or comprehension of everyday language. It only tests comprehension of a very specific type of Japanese. We’ll get into this more in a bit.

Should I take the JLPT?

Short answer—

Ask yourself:

Am I learning Japanese for fun or to communicate with those dear to me?

Yes → The JLPT probably isn’t worth your time and money, though it can be nice for motivation if having a goal to push for works well for you.

No → See next question.

Am I learning Japanese for work or to move to Japan?

Yes → It’s a good idea to pass at least the N2, preferably the N1.

No → See first question.

Long answer—

Learning Japanese for fun

If you want to learn Japanese so you can play video games, talk with friends and family, or travel to Japan, then taking the JLPT probably isn’t worth your time and money.

If it looks like a fun goal to set, then by all means, go ahead!

There are plenty of students who have found having a goal to try to reach is incredibly motivating to their studies. If you’re one of them, then you should give it a shot, no matter what level.

At the same time, there are also plenty of students who get stressed about setting goals/deadlines in their studies.

These students should just study what they find interesting instead of digging into materials for standardized tests, as worrying about what JLPT level whatever piece of Japanese is is probably one of the easiest ways to not make progress and burn out while studying.

Either way, it should be noted that the JLPT is quite inaccurate at evaluating your actual Japanese proficiency and functionality, so if you’re trying to use it to evaluate your abilities, then you’ll be looking at the wrong metrics.

Many, many students who have passed the N1, the most advanced level, have found themselves completely unable to use the fundamental Japanese that is found in everyday life.

They can often find themselves struggling with understanding a normal question directed at them at the conbini, and/or producing sentences that are natural enough to be readily understood by other speakers of Japanese, native or not.

We’ll elaborate on what causes this later in this guide.

By the way, if you’re learning for fun but playing with the possibility of living in Japan at some point, it could be a good thing to have an N1 or N2 certification at the ready while you listen for potential opportunities to move.

The N2 is quite simple to pass with the right study methods and minimal amounts of stress, so it could very well be worth it if this is your case. It doesn’t hurt, at the very least. We’ll see more about the specific study methods in the other parts of this guide.

Learning Japanese to work or move to Japan

If you’re trying to live and work in Japan or become a translator, passing the JLPT and obtaining N2 or N1 could become the very foundation your life is built on, as these two levels open your possibilities up exponentially.

In short, having an N2 or N1 certification can bring you from only being qualified to teach English in Japan, to being able to do any job you want as long as you have the other appropriate qualifications as well.

Note that I’m specifically saying N1 and N2, which are the two most advanced levels.

This is because, as far as working and living in Japan goes, the N5, N4, and N3 are often meaningless to employers, and we at NativShark consider these levels to be a waste of your time and your money for these purposes in most cases. As such, we don’t recommend taking them at all.*

*Some employers might take an N3 instead of an N2 because these certifications can be so scarce due to the low pass rates. That said, if you’re going to take the JLPT for the reasons stated above, these lower levels are, more often than not, meaningless. The N2 is also not that far of a gap from N3. So if you’re taking the N3, you might as well attempt the N2 instead. We’ll be covering this topic much more in-depth later in this guide.

Let’s examine what the JLPT actually evaluates along with the test-taking process, so we know exactly what we’re up against if we decide to take it.

What does the JLPT test?

For the N1 and N2 tests, the JLPT consists of 3 separate sections of the Japanese language.

The first section is called “Language Knowledge” and it tests your comprehension of vocabulary and grammar. This involves multiple-choice for which kanji, kanji reading, or word fits into a given sentence.

The second is Reading, where you read passages of varying lengths and then answer some multiple-choice questions about them.

The third and final section is Listening, where you listen to an audio track and answer multiple-choice questions on it.

There is 0 production on the JLPT. There is no speaking or writing. (It is permissible to breathe a deep sigh of relief upon hearing this news, haha.)

All you have to do is answer multiple-choice questions based on a sentence, piece of audio, or a passage that you have read.

Since everything is completely multiple-choice, we’ll be able to use that to our advantage and boost our scores when taking the test. We’ll cover that in detail in Part 4 of this guide.

But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean that the pass rates look very good.

Why do so many people fail the JLPT?

Here’s an image of the results of the July 2022 exam from the JLPT website:

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A screenshot from the official JLPT website.

Looking at the total Japan + Overseas test takers, we see that the total pass rate of all levels for the July 2022 exam was 40.4%.

It gets even lower for the N2 and N1, at 37.3% for the N2 and a heart-breaking 30.2% for the N1.

To add salt to the wound, many learners who take the JLPT are speakers of Korean or Chinese, who have a huge advantage over us native English speakers thanks to how similar their grammar and writing systems are respectively.

In short, the numbers for people who passed the JLPT and aren’t native Chinese or Korean speakers are probably much lower.

You can search around for the other years as well, as this isn’t an oddball year. The pass rates are just that low.

These low rates are the result of students not setting themselves up properly for the test.

They attempt to study for the test, but then they forget to learn Japanese while they’re at it.

We see students studying test prep material, grammar guides, or other materials exclusively at the level they want to take the test, so painfully often.

We have even seen learners actively reject learning anything “above” the level they want to pass, saying that it won’t be helpful to them. They also may reject certain suggestions for native materials based on this as well, or never even attempt any native materials thinking they would also be a waste of time due to it not focusing on the JLPT level they want to pass.

I want to be abundantly clear about one thing:

This is one of the most destructive mindsets you could possibly have when learning Japanese, for passing the JLPT or not.

Here’s why:

Wide not deep

As you’re likely already aware, Japanese is a fundamentally different language compared to English.

Due to this fact, as learners, we simply can’t intuit how Japanese works until we’ve seen it used enough times in the appropriate contexts, and/or have had it explained to us many times (in most cases, we need a light explanation and then lots of exposure).

In other words, to begin to deeply understand anything in Japanese, we need a lot of exposure to a lot of different Japanese in many different contexts and situations. (This isn’t very different from learning other languages, but it is a bit more pronounced.)

This isn’t to mention the fact that there are no officially published up-to-date lists of words and grammar points for any of the JLPT levels, so we never really know what will be on the test in the first place. It would be non-ideal to have something perfectly memorized at the cost of getting your feet wet with many other points of Japanese that could potentially be on the test.

This makes intuitive sense as well.

Since we don’t know what’s going to be on the test, having a shaky understanding of 10 grammar points or pieces of vocab is going to be much better than “perfectly”* knowing 2 of them and never having even seen the other 8.

*I put “perfectly” in quotes because you can’t perfectly understand something without the greater context of Japanese it fits into, which you can only get from having seen many different parts of the language in many different contexts.

Even if some grammar points you have a shaky understanding of are “above” the test level, you have a higher chance of successfully understanding or accurately guessing a different one based on your experience with those various grammar points.

That means you’ll be able to guess faster based on your current knowledge base.

And since the format is multiple-choice, fast, educated guesses are what get you successfully to the end.

On top of that, people in the real world don’t talk like they do in JLPT exams.

All of the sentences in the Language Knowledge section are completely textbook, valuing grammatical accuracy over naturalness and actual use in everyday life.

This is understandable because it’s a standardized test, and we need standards to grade by. Having those standards be ‘perfect’ grammar isn’t a bad idea. In fact, it’s probably the only idea, because language is constantly evolving.

But if we only study using resources that go off of JLPT-specific language, we’re unlikely to get exposure to the things that will help improve our Japanese in meaningful ways.

This hurts our chances of passing. By a lot.

Generally, it’s better to study to be functional in Japanese because that is harder than passing the test. If you’re good at something harder than the test, the test will be easy.

This all means that the general strategy for passing the JLPT is to learn Japanese, and then add some focus on the test format in the few months leading up to the test depending on your past experience, if you do any test prep at all.

In practical terms, it is much better to have an incredibly strong fundamental understanding and wide general knowledge of Japanese than it is to worry about if you have “studied every N2 grammar point” before taking the N2 test.

Again, we’ll be covering this in other parts of the guide, so let’s take a look at the rest of the basics of the JLPT.

How do I take the JLPT?

Signing up

In Japan, the JLPT is held twice a year, usually at schools and universities around Japan. The first test is held in the beginning of July, and the second test is in the beginning of December.

Overseas, the test is often held only once a year. You can check the full details on the official website for tests near you:

The official website in Japanese: https://www.jlpt.jp/

The official website in English: https://www.jlpt.jp/e/

Note you have to sign up about 3 months in advance. If you miss this signup period, you’ll have to wait for the next one, which could be quite unfortunate. So be sure to check the website for when you can sign up, and write that in your calendar or somewhere you won’t forget.

When signing up, you will have to choose which test level you want to take.

As we mentioned earlier, we only recommend taking the N2 or N1.

To get a quick gauge of what your current test level might be, there are official sample questions that can be found here.

That said, keep in mind that you want to be thinking about what your ability will look like at the time of the test, not what it is now.

So if you’re signing up right now, 3 months away, and on the edge of N1 (say you get 35% to 50% of the questions on that official sample correct) then you should be able to pass the N1 in 3 months’ time with the proper dedicated study that we’ll be discussing in the other parts of this guide.

If that percentage sounds really low and you would think you’d be failing on that, that’s because the JLPT has a bit of a unique way of grading.

How the test is graded

Again, the test is divided up into 3 parts: Language Knowledge (vocabulary and kanji), Reading, and Listening for the N2 and N1 levels.

Each of these parts are graded out of 60 points, which means you can score up to a 180 on the JLPT.

While the exact passing line varies per level, you only need the equivalent of about a total score of 50%-55% correct (90 to 100 points), with a minimum score of about 31% (19 out of 60 points) on each of the three sections.

If you get under a 19 on any section, you fail the test, even if the other two sections were perfect 60 out of 60 points.

Here’s a chart pulled from the official website:

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A screen from the

For the N1, we can see that our minimum passing points is 100. In other words, you need to score the equivalent of a 55% or more to pass.

For the N2, we need 90 points to pass, which is a clean 50% or more.

It’s a nice note to mention here that grades are decided based on the answers of all students to each question, which means some questions might be worth more or less based on these curves. 1 question does not necessarily equal 1 point, in other words.

The day of the test

The test is held in 2 sections with short breaks in between.

Be sure to show up early because you won’t get admitted if you’re late. Showing up early gives you a nice opportunity to make some friends with similar interests, too!

By the way, don’t bother with cramming in anything last minute. Just do your normal studies for the day, if you have time before.

At this point, you’re either going to know something or not know it. Cramming will only increase your stress levels and make you perform worse.

How long is the test?

The N1 does the Language Knowledge and the Reading sections in one go, which takes 110 minutes.

The listening then follows at 55 minutes (which can change a bit based on the CD length).

That means for the N1, you’re looking at 165 minutes of total test time.

The N2 is just barely shorter, with the Language Knowledge and Reading section being 105 minutes long and the Listening 50 minutes long.

That means for the N2, you’re looking at 155 minutes of total test time.

Getting results

Results for the test can be found online usually around a month and a half after the test day, where you log in with the information you received in your test voucher email.

You’ll also get your results in the mail with exactly what your scores were in each section along with if you passed it or not.

Depending on where you take it, you may get a nice piece of certification paper if you passed, in addition to the breakdown of the results.

Good luck!

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Continue with Part 2 of this guide.