• JUL 27, 2021 11:32

JLPT Needs to Change, and Here Is Why

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is the most widely used Japanese language ability tests. However, it is far away from what language tests should be.

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is the most widely used Japanese language ability tests. However, it is far away from what language tests should be.

The countdown is clicking. And within less than a month I will be facing the challenge of taking the JLPT N1 test, again. Due to the mere lack of five points, I was not able to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test last year. Nevertheless, giving up is not an option.
Perhaps, this article might appear as a rant of a frustrated person that failed an insignificant test, however, there are plenty of reasons of why the JLPT system, the way it is carried out today needs to change immediately. So hear me out.
This article will mainly focus on JLPT N1 level, as it is the one I have invested the most time. Besides it is the highest level you can obtain.

First held in 1984, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (日本語能力試験), or JLPT, is a standardized Japanese language ability test, evaluating the language knowledge, reading and listening ability of non-native Japanese speakers. Held in over 40 countries, the JLPT is held twice a year in Japan (July and December), and divided into five levels: N5 for beginners, and N1 for advanced Japanese speakers.

Obtaining a high JLPT level can bring a lot of benefits: Preferential immigration treatment, essential during the universities admission process, or as a key requirement at certain universities for international undergraduate students to apply for early graduation. Moreover, many Japanese employers refer to it as a language requirement standard for foreign workers.

What the Kanji

The first part of the JLPT N1 test consists of kanji, divided into correct reading and usage. The problem is that those kanji are not commonly used in news articles, business mails, or textbooks, let alone in daily life. Those are frequently kanji, which even a large number of Japanese people struggle to remember. It appears to me that they purposely choose a set of kanji that may be difficult to remember. However, if you focus less on improving your Japanese, and solely learn how to pass this test, you might happen to know it. Actually, this sentence sums up quite well my overall impression for JLPT.

Too Many Words to Memorize

Similar to the kanji section, the way the vocabulary is tested leaves any passionate Japanese language learner with a headache and plenty of frustration. The multiple choice answers are often too similar, and even if you thought you knew what this word meant, it is applied in a setting, that makes you start questioning if you have ever been studying Japanese the right way. Instead of narrowing down the tester’s ability to only know the meaning of a particular word, questions should be organized in a way that allow them to showcase their overall understanding of the sentences, which is how communication in real life works. TOEFL for example, has only a few questions that require the tester to choose the correct synonym of a word. Yet the big difference is that those questions are derived from a long reading passage, hence giving more context to the word, which on the other hand shows if the person taking the test has a comprehensive understanding of the language.

Grammar That Nobody Uses

We all know it, Japanese grammar is hard, but why make it even harder? Or why request non-native Japanese speakers to master a grammar, which local people frown upon? I have had countless times, when I would ask a Japanese person, regardless of age, how I could possibly utilize this grammar structure during a conversation. The answer is always the same: We know what it means, but we don’t actually use it. N1 requires highly sophisticated grammar, yet leaves out the question of how essential it is in real life, whether it is at school, at work, or when going to the hospital.

How to Get a Library Membership If You Don’t Live in the Same City

The reading part is where you can either make it or break it. Non-native speakers with a Chinese language / Kanji background are definitely at an advantage, however only to a certain degree. Understanding the deep emotions of an author that criticizes society, the evolution of a certain bacteria, or the vast amount of conditions and twists when going to a museum. The reading categories are just a lot and disorganized, as well as exemplify very well the key issues about JLPT: The lack of a target audience, structure, and purpose.
However, what makes the reading ability section an even more unpleasant experience are the questions. You are often left with the feeling that none of the ABCD options are correct, or that two answers are basically the same and you feel forced to flip a coin to decided which one to choose. I cannot help but get the impression that the answers are purposely misleading, but for what reason?

A Good Example of How Things Should Be Done

The last and probably most satisfying part of the entire N1 test is listening. Not only does the level of the spoken part reflect on what you would actually hear in Japan every day, the scenarios are somewhat realistic, the pace of the speakers are adequate, and for once the conversations are not unnecessarily made complicated. What is interesting, however, is that there is a huge difficulty gap between the listening part and the rest of the test. It feels as if the listening part could be at least one level lower, at N2 or N3 level.

Last but Not Least Speaking, or Maybe Not?

Imagine taking a language ability test that will check your skills in all kinds of categories, yet ignores the speaking part. That is right, the most important part of learning, and eventually mastering any language is not present in JLPT. This jeopardizes the entire legitimacy of the test. There are numerous of cases of people passing the test, however, not possessing the speaking ability that would reflect a solid N1 level. This becomes especially a delicate matter for companies that use JLPT results as a hiring standard and requirement, expecting the future employer not only to be able to listen and read, but also at least speak enough Japanese in order to communicate at work.
HSK (Chinese Proficiency Test), the Chinese equivalent to JLPT, has had the same issue of not incorporating a speaking part in the past. However, in recent years they have added one, in which testers have to orally answer a set of questions, which are being recored and later evaluated by examiners. This proves that with some efforts, elaborating a speaking part is not too much of a challenge.


From Passive to Active

In order to be fully considered a reflection of one’s language ability, a speaking part is indispensable. Therefore, JLPT should incorporate it in future tests, whether it be by recording the answers or have testers engage in a face to face conversation with examiners, as it is done by IELTS. This would especially enable those Japanese learners who have excellent speaking skills, yet have difficulty with kanji or reading.
Adding a writing part could also allow testers more space to express their language and comprehension skills, and reduces the burden of having only one answer per question. We all know that in communication there is more than just one correct answer.

Less Is More

Perhaps less heavy emphasis on specific kanji, vocabulary, or grammar, and instead a rather overall comprehension of the Japanese language could lead to a more realistic result of the testers performance. Furthermore, setting a standard of the aim of JLPT, and what it is really for, would make the test more compressed. For instance, TOEFL on one hand, is aimed for people who would like to pursue a higher education in an English speaking country, particularly the USA. This can be seen throughout the entire test, as all categories are somehow related to education and life on campus. JLPT on the other hand, is too broad, in a way that it is hard to determine whether you can work, study, live, or become a bestselling author in Japan.


JLPT has long been THE criterion-referenced test to evaluate Japanese language ability. However, in my opinion the general testing structure is outdated and not realistic. Whereas parts such as speaking and writing could have been neglected in the past, this is no longer acceptable in today’s world. As many companies in Japan regard it as an important qualification, JLPT N1 should be an accurate reflection of one’s language ability. Especially along with the increase of foreigners living and working in Japan, JLPT would improve a lot by drastically restructuring its current format in order to meet ongoing social trends in the country.
Nevertheless, regardless of my views about JLPT N1, it is definitely a worthy challenge. Passing it indicates a certain amount of hard work and will power. Therefore, I am eager to face this battle royal again in July.

What are your thoughts about JLPT or any other language ability test?

(By Stefan)

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