This page is devoted to the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam or JLPT (日本語能力試験). It was originally inspired by Robert’s excellent JLPT level 3 Roundup page, I wanted to chronicle my efforts to pass the JLPT and what works for me, and what doesn’t. Also, I wanted to share more general advice for mastering Japanese language, which is reputed to be one of the most difficult in the world, and to help others prepare for the JLPT. For 2010, I decided to take the N3 rather than jumping up to the N2, due to other unrelated projects and overall lack of time to prepare. In 2011 though, I took the N2 exam and passed. I’m undecided if I want to try for the N1 exam someday because the commitment is much longer.

This page is periodically updated as I refine learning methods, or find things I did wrong previously. Feel free to check back every few months.

New to Japanese Language?

If you’re new, or relatively new to studying Japanese language, I would strongly, strongly recommend taking Tae Kim’s online Japanese-language course. Even if you learned Japanese previously, chances are you might have learned some things wrong, and it’s always good to review the basics, since the basic grammar is (in Tae Kim’s words), very frequently used, and often the hardest to grasp. This has been my experience as a student of Japanese language for years. I developed a lot of bad habits and assumptions I started to correct only recently.

Even if you think you’re familiar with basic Japanese, I highly recommend reviewing it anyway because we can all use some improvement.

I mention this because if you plan to take the JLPT exams, you should have a strong foundation in the basics anyway. It will make your exam experience a lot more positive, and give you strong footing as you move into more advanced Japanese. :)

Understanding the JLPT

The JLPT exam is one of a few tests of Japanese-language proficiency, but it is arguably the most widely-used and most well-known. Through 2009, the test had 4 levels, with level 4 covering only basic greetings, vocabulary and such, and level 1 being very advanced. Many jobs in Japan require at least JLPT N2 proficiency. I know that for more exciting jobs, a JLPT N1 certification is often required.

However, in 2010, the format of the test changed. As the JLPT Foundation explains, the test has been updated with four points in mind. Take time to familiarize yourself with the change in format.

The test still has five requisite skills candidates must demonstrate proficiency in:

  • Kanji (Chinese characters)
  • Vocabulary
  • Listening
  • Grammar
  • Reading comprehension

The test is multiple choice, and no writing or speaking. For those interested in testing their ability to read/write kanji, consider the Kanken proficiency test instead. If you’re looking to improve your conversational skills, the JLPT will only help a little. There are other, more effective ways to improve conversational skills. In any case, to make progress in Japanese language studies, you really need constant exposure to Japanese media (and/or people) and then you can review what you learn through JLPT materials or other excellent books. In the long-run this is the best course. If you live outside of Japan, you have to be a little creative, but this page will help you find resources. Just remember: exposure, exposure, EXPOSURE!

An explanation of scoring, also provided by the JLPT foundation, can be found here.

Should I take the JLPT?

That depends. The JLPT is first and foremost an entrance exam for students of Japanese language who want to apply to college there. It is often used for job applications in Japan as well (N2 and above typically). The focus of the JLPT is literacy, not conversational skills. Speaking from experience, I have found that the JLPT helps me understand Japanese grammar and reading, but after the N4 or N3, it didn’t help me much with conversation because the words and grammar became too advanced for daily conversation. There are some who argue that the JLPT is a complete waste of time in learning Japanese.

So, you have to decide what your priorities are. If you want to get good at conversation Japanese, the JLPT is helpful at the lower levels (especially the N4 and N3), but you should learn your Japanese from resources like Tae Kim’s blog, and/or AJATT.

On the other hand, if you are interested in studying/working in Japan, and you have other marketable workplace skills, then the JLPT may be worth studying all the way up to the advanced levels (N2 and N1), but only if you supplement it with extensive practical exposure.

Which JLPT level is right for me?

That’s a good question. Many people come to Japanese with various backgrounds, and it’s hard to “step into the stream” at first, since you are not sure what your level is. The JLPT foundation has a new set of sample tests for each N level. They’re very short sample test, but provide a good overview of what that level looks like. Try taking a few levels and see which one is challenging, but not too hard, and that is probably the level you should study for.

For example, I passed the old JLPT3 (now N4) last year, and wanted to see if I was ready for the N2 (old JLPT2), so I took a sample test and realized how much harder the N2 test is. If I had the time to cram, I don’t believe I could absorb and practice that much material for the N2 in one year, so as mentioned above, I opted for the N3 instead in 2010, which based on the sample tests, seemed more appropriate anyway. After a year of study, I passed the N3. In 2011, I took the sample tests again and found the N2 still a significant challenge, but more manageable now, so I could feel some sense of progress between 2010 and 2011, enough to build upon.

Personally, I feel you should challenge yourself, so if you pick a level that’s easy for you, you will not really accomplish anything (unless the test will be held soon). On the other hand, if you pick a level too far above, you can get discouraged and give up if you are impatient for results. The middle ground seems right: pick a level that’s a stretch above your skill level. It gives you a challenge to work toward. Nothing worthwhile in life comes easy. :)

More thoughts here too, about studying Japanese language long-term, relevant for higher-level JLPT students.

How long do I have to prepare?

This depends on the level of the test of course. Easier levels require less time, while higher levels can take even years to prepare for, because there’s so much material to learn. I can’t stress this enough: memorizing something isn’t enough. This is a foreign language, not mathematics. Languages require huge amounts of practice for multiple facets, so that the words and grammar become internalized, and almost as automatic as your native language. Listening, especially, requires lots of time to practice. If you see or hear a certain word in Japanese a few times, you may get familiar with it, but if you see it 200 times, it becomes rote. Grammar also requires a lot of practice to construct sentences correctly, determine what particle is appropriate and so on.

Since for most people the test is only offered in December, it’s good to start early in January, as I do every year. If it is a lower-level test, you can master the material in a few months, and practice during the rest of the time. The higher levels of course require a lot more time to absorb all the material, then practice to proficiency. Plan to spend a few years studying possibly, especially for the N1.

This website, provides a nice overview of the levels and how much study time is expected to pass. The JLPT Foundation also talks about what people are expected to be able to do at each level.

If you’re looking for other sample tests, you can also try using the sample JLPT tests from JapanesePod101.com. They also have other JLPT resources, but I haven’t checked this in a while, so I can’t comment on it.


Anyone whose serious about the JLPT and learning Japanese should consider investing in test and study materials. Nothing worthwhile in life comes free. :) This is especially difficult for people who live in countries where JLPT resources are few, or too expensive, but the JLPT is a serious undertaking and not something done casually. If you intend to live/work in Japan, you simply need to invest in the right tools and resources properly.

I’ve found lots of good JLPT resources can be purchased at such places as the JapanShop or on White Rabbit Press or even Amazon JP.

There are some books I recommend for Japanese-language students in general, regardless of their level:

The previous list contains books not directly focused on the JLPT, but beyond N4, you really have to start investing time to learn the whole language, not just select material for the JLPT. The higher-level tests become so broad, you will benefit a lot from general, Japanese-language studies.

Practice Tests

First and foremost, take the official sample tests first, so you can gauge the proper level for yourself.

Once that’s done, the key to preparing for the JLPT exam is practice, practice, practice. Without practice tests, you cannot see where you are weak, and where you are making frequent mistakes. A surprising number of resources are available if you know where to look.

Because of the change to the JLPT, the old practice tests sold at various websites no longer are useful. I found the exams have different structure and different focus, so if you spend too much time with old practice exams, you will be surprised by the format of the new exams. So, instead, I recommend you try to get practice tests for the new exams only, and do not buy the old exams, unless they come after the “change”.

At this time, I can’t recommend any practice exams apart from the “Kanzen Master” series. These exams are artificially difficult, but if you can practice and score well on these exams, you can be sure to score well on the real JLPT.

Listening Resources

As I posted before, listening is one of the hardest aspects of learning a language, and can make the difference on the JLPT. This is also the hardest skill to cultivate when preparing for the JLPT, but really pays off in the long-run because it’s so practical. The previous post, linked above, contains some resources for online web casts, daily streaming media and so on. Dynamic content is the best way to get used to the many kinds of conversations you can face in Japan, as well as on the JLPT. A good example is Japanese language podcasts (more info here), if you can access those. Or, if nothing else, try listening to radio broadcasts on the Internet through NHK.

The JLPT listening questions are intended to be tricky, with lots of sidetracks, red-herrings and other useless information, so you need to learn how to relax when listening and absorb the whole sentence, rather than fixating on the first thing you understand. It’s a habit that must be overcome when learning a language, and requires a lot of time for your mind to adjust to the different sounds and words. If you practice enough, you will find the listening sections surprisingly easy because you just get used to hearing it so much! I’ve confirmed this in my experience with the JLPT 3 (old) and new JLPT N3.

For both, I was surprised by how easy some questions were, because I spent so much time getting used to how Japanese sounds. Having a Japanese spouse helps, but this is a skill anyone can acquire if you’re patient, and spend a little time each day. You cannot cram for listening, it just takes consistency and practice. This is a skill you probably should start early, and pace yourself for.

Vocabularly, Practice

Vocabulary is a tricky subject, especially now that the JLPT is moving away from set lists people can memorize and cram for, but it’s also one of the fundamental building blocks of a language. Having passed the N4 level comfortably, I decided to branch out into real Japanese reading materials like Manga and such. The White Rabbit Press’s Graded Reader Series became too easy by this point (though quite fun to read and helped me pass the N4), so it was only natural.

Also, my wife pointed out that my memorization of vocabulary wasn’t helping because I didn’t understand the right context and usage, so reading real Japanese manga would address this. There are certain tricks to doing this, but once you get used to not knowing all the words, you can rapidly develop your vocabulary by making a note of new words, using a good online dictionary like jisho.org, and storing the information into Anki for practice later. It’s a kind of cycle that quickly proves useful, I believe, and is recommended by AJATT as well.

With the new JLPT, there are no more word-lists to study, so instead, you have to become used to reading at a certain level. Speaking from experience, there’s still a chance you’ll encounter words you didn’t know before, but the more you practice reading and reviewing new words you encounter, the less often you’ll encounter unknown words. In fact, if you encounter unknown words, you might be able to guess their meaning because of similar words you’ve encountered before.

Lastly, you can look for help at JapanesePod101.com, which is not focused on the JLPT explicitly, but contains a lot of helpful resources for learning the language, and covers many of the same grammar points over the course of its lessons. The overlap, plus extra listening brings things together well, and I spent many hours in the past listening to their lessons before graduating to actual Podcasts in Japanese.

A lot of problems in communication with Japanese is knowing what people are saying (the words), and how to express yourself clearly and concisely, so vocabulary studies really help, but also learning the proper usage and context, which are also tested in the exam as well!

Study Approach

As far as what order to practice, here’s my approach so far:

  1. Start right away with kanji and vocabulary. Get the material memorized pretty well, otherwise you will struggle with more difficult sections like listening, grammar and reading comprehension.
  2. As the same time, start finding a way to practice listening consistently and often. Listening in general is the hardest skill to learn for a language, so you need all the time you can get. A decent score in the listening section will make all the difference, and will have very practical applications in communicating with Japanese people. It’s time well spent!
  3. Once you the vocabulary and kanji out of the way (takes at least a few months), start on grammar. Grammar may not take long to learn, but it does take a long time to practice, and also has practical benefits in communication, and in the listening section too.
  4. As you get familiar with kanji, vocabulary and grammar, now you should start taking practice tests. Start with mock tests first if you have them, then move onto the real tests. The mock tests published can be slightly harder than the real test, but that’s preferable as it will discipline you well ahead of the real test.
  5. Once done, focus on the real tests, and spend a lot of time now going over your weak areas. Like most people, listening is probably your hardest subject still, so do everything you can to immerse yourself. If you have access to the older tests, take those too and learn how the flow of the test goes.

The time-scale here will vary depending on which test you take, but the process is essentially the same. So, adjust the plan above with the time-scale appropriate for you, and get started.


The debate about how relevant the JLPT is is nothing new to the Internet, but for me, as a Japanophile and student of the language, I found it a very motivating benchmark for my own studies. I know from first-hand experience that studying for the JLPT and practicing the material a lot helped my real-life experiences in Japan, so it’s not time wasted if you really do want to learn the language.

For me, it’s both a hobby and fun challenge. I hope you will enjoy it was much as I have. Good luck!

27 Responses to JLPT Prep

  1. Aaahhh very good very good.

  2. Alexandre says:

    You say “JLPT3 can definitely be passed in a year [...]. JLPT 4 can be passed in 6 months. JLPT 2 seems to take about 2-3 years, or even one year”.

    Does this mean you consider that 3kyuu can be passed after one year of study, or after 1 year plus 6 months for 4kyuu?

    In any case, while 3kyuu CAN be passed in a year, I don’t think this reflects the situation of most students, at least that of students outside of Japan.

  3. Doug says:

    Matthew Thank you, sir. :)

    Alexandre Welcome to the JLR. Regarding your question, I assume you mean someone whose doing this entirely from scratch. If so, you should definitely go for the JLPT 4 first, which takes about 6 months of consistent study and practice. Then, you should think about the JLPT3, which takes another year. So that would 1.5 years in total.

    As for whether a student can pass level 3 in a year, I think it really depends on the student. I skipped 4 altogether, but I started preparing for 3 in January, and have had a whole year. So far things are looking pretty hopeful. That’s why I dumped as much info as I could onto the blog to help empower others to do the same.

    The issue isn’t so much time, but investment. If you invest the time, and do it consistently, your language skills will improve. It’s easy to make a great start, but harder to stay with it. But if you want the certification enough, you’ll find you had strength you never thought possible.

    Part of it also is creating a no-fail environment, so that rather than relying on willpower, you setup your environment so you don’t have to force yourself. Instead you’re just exposed to it a lot. Exposure is the best way to learn a language, and if you can manipulate your environment, even outside of Japan, to be conducive to learning Japanese, you will learn it without really trying. :)

    The materials for level 4 and 3 aren’t that great in size or content. It’s the absorption and practice of the material that takes a while. I crammed a lot in the first months, and then spent all the time until now just practicing and taking more practice tests (or old tests sold above).

    Investment and exposure. That’s the two key elements. If you’re taking the JLPT, I wish you the best of luck! :D

  4. Alexandre says:

    Thanks for the input. I started a year ago exactly and I will give JLPT3 a go this December. I am guessing I am just around the passing grade now.
    So, best of luck to the both of us!

  5. Doug says:

    I’ll think you’ll do fine. :) If you can get a hold of old JLPT tests and do a few of those, you’ll really get some preparation accomplished. Above all else, practice, practice, practice!

  6. alchymyst says:

    I am using the white rabbit kanji cards too, I think they are wonderful even if you don’t plan on taking JLPT. I’m not even sure if I’ll end up taking the test, I just want to get more proficient and get my reading skills up to where I can actually read anything! :D

  7. Doug says:

    alchymyst: The JLPT provides a nice benchmark, and for me at least, a reason to keep studying (a milestone in my studies), but I didn’t for a long time, so I know where you are coming from. :)

  8. Jay says:

    What a fantastic blog! I’m enjoying reading posts like this. I’ve found myself getting discouraged, but after reading your suggestions on studying for the JLPT, I’m ready to start digging in! Thanks :)

  9. Doug says:

    Hi Jay and welcome to the JLR. Glad this helped. It’s easy to get discouraged, but if you set aside any mental misgivings and just keep at it, you can’t help but improve. :) Best of luck in your studies.

  10. Venkatesh says:


    Hajime mashite!
    Venkatesh desu.Indo-jin desu.

    * BOWS __/=== *

    I took the level 3 JLPT test on last December 6th and passed! I passed by the skin on my teeth, but I still passed.

    My Score Report:

    文字・語彙 : 76/100
    聴解 : 35/100
    読解・文法 : 148/200

    Total = 259/400(64.75%)

    As you can see my score deatils, my score in Listening section refelects how terrible i’m when it comes to listening, thats always been my weakest area and i’m finding it really hard to improve in this particular section obviously because i’m from india and i don’t get to talk to native speakers much other than my sensei who is a japanese.

    I need your valuable suggestion on improving my listening skill.

    Thanks in advance!

    Ja mata.

  11. Doug says:

    Hi Venkatesh and welcome to the JLR!

    I think the listening section is by far the most difficult section, but at the same time, probably the most important. One cannot communicate unless they can actually understand what’s said, and unfortunately it’s also the slowest skill to master. That’s because you cannot cram or memorize for it. Even if you learn a lot of vocabulary, you have to consistently expose yourself to spoken language so that the words are understood automatically. You can’t waste time thinking and remembering what a word means. It must be understood to the point that it’s automatic. Then, when you go into the JLPT or any Japanese speaking situation, it’s acatually kind of easy.

    With that said, your best bet is to just expose yourself to Japanese media constantly. it should be dynamic, not just one movie or two over and over again. You need fresh content, and you need to listen to it almost daily. Doesn’t have to be for a long duration, but just getting your ear used to it.

    Podcasts are one great way of doing this, as are online shows. Both are linked here on the blog at certain points. Just keep doing it, and you’ll be surprised how much easier things become. Speaking from experience, when you take the JLPT listening section sounds slow because you’re used to natural speed (they dumb it down for us foreign students because most are not used to native speed). You’ll be surprised. Try it out for a year and by the next JLPT, your listening skills should be stronger.

    Good luck!

  12. Troo says:

    Excellent information, Doug, thank you!

    I find it difficult to practice speaking and comprehension without being in Japan. Being surrounded by English all the time is extremely distracting. On the other hand, I neither have a Degree (thus rendering something like JET well beyond my reach in spite of my profession and skill with the English language) nor a Japanese partner. Curses.

    I suspect that, sooner or later, I’m just going to take the plunge and go live in Japan off my savings for a few months, perhaps attend some Kumon classes while there.

    I shall certainly give those graded reader books a shot in the meantime, though! Thanks :)


  13. Doug says:

    Hi Troo,

    Welcome to the JLT! Yeah, not being in Japan really does make things harder, but there’s still a considerable amount you can do in the meantime (before you go). It’s just learning how to learn, among other things. Memorization doesn’t really work, but finding a routine to practice does, and the Internet makes things far easier than it once did. :)

    Best of luck,

  14. Troo says:

    It’s true. I’m terribly lazy ;) And with a poor memory!

  15. Ewings says:

    I am appearing for N5, and am starting from scratch. What all am i expected to cover for it? Can you list out a few things?

  16. drivya says:

    Doug- San

    Did you appear for N2 level on dec 2010 or you are planning it in July 2011. I am also appearing for N2 in July2011. It would be great if you can share some information and links for improving score in reading comprehension. I just scored 60% in dokkai in N3.

  17. Doug M says:


    No, I took the N3 this year (see related posts in blog), so I have experience with the N2 and can’t offer help.

    In general if you want to improve reading comprehension, you need to read Japanese media: comics, books, websites and so on. It’s the only way. Find a topic that interests you and just start reading.

    Good luck!

  18. superscube says:

    That’s some great info about JLPT truly helpful for some one thinking about how to go about with the study and yes I agree with you there is no use mugging up the vocabulary as its its pretty tough to identify when to use which word where.

  19. superscube says:


    I had some queries regarding JLPT N3 it would be great if we could have a little chat on it,
    My email: something@email.com contact me on this if possible.
    About a month to go the before the day wow never been more excited.


  20. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Superscube and sorry for the late reply. I can’t really discuss anything about the test apart from what’s already publicly available so I am sorry that I can’t be of anymore help.

  21. KK says:

    Hi doug

    it was really nice to read your suggestions on taking JLPT.

    I am KK from India and was studying japanese few years back …

    I did an intensive course in Japanese for 1 yr which was a full time course. It was suppose to be equivalent to san Kyuu.

    However I never appeared for JLPT after that as i started working and i didnt have much time. Now after 4 years i have landed here in japan working for a jap company.

    I am preparing again for taking on the JLPT examination. Even though the complete set up around me is in japanese (japanaese colleagues/ movies / programs / operating system to mails)… i do have only few months to prepare. I believe i will take help of some tutor also but I am not sure which level to appear for as I think lot many things have changed now from past JLPT level.

    could you please suggest which level to prepare for now ….keeeping a time limit in consideration which is only 3 months now ….

    Your suggestion will be highly appreciated.



  22. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hello and welcome. I can’t tell you which level is appropriate. Instead, I suggest you take the JLPT practice exams offered by the JLPT foundation, linked in this page, and see which one is appropriate for your level and with three months of practice. Good luck.

  23. victoriansilk says:


  24. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Thanks and good luck on the JLPT.

  25. Kasugano says:

    I guess those people who watches lots of anime/drama and Learning Japanese at the same time will help their listening alot. :)

  26. Katie (ke chan) says:

    Thanks for your wonderful blog! I spent a year in Japan in the mid 90s, studied at university to 402. I found that the three hundred level was quite easy for me. The 400 level was quite challenging. I’ve been working in the finance field and have had the opportunity to work with japanese clients. Over the years I’ve been told that my spoken Japanese is quite good. My reading skills need some work. After being out of college for 10 years and just finishing the CFP, I decided to challenge the JLPT for fun. I took level 4 knowing that my kanji is weak. I found that having taken the 10 hr CFP test the week before this test was quite short and surprisingly easy. I passed the test the first time. I’d like to challenge level 3 now. I’ve found some websites but would prefer to use books to study form and use the web as supplemental material. Do you have any suggestions? I’ve looked at some of the vocal for level three and found that when spoken or written in hiragana I understand. My chgallenge will be learning the kanji. Thanks for your help in advance!

  27. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Katie and welcome! Sorry for the late reply, been swamped with work.

    Anyhow by the time you get to N3 I think it’s fine focusing on reading and not kanji. By reading I mean reading things you enjoy via manga and such. I did that and passed the N3 without any kanji practice. Kanji seems a little de-emphasized on the new exams anyway compared to reading, plus from personal experience of you learn new vocab you also learn new kanji. :-)

    Best of luck!

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