How to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, according to two successful scholars

Pass the JLPT and you can join the crowd in front of lit-up Kawazu cherry blossom trees, one of the earliest blooming cherry blossoms in Japan, in Kawazu, Shizuoka Prefecture on February 20, 2024. Source: AFP

If you plan to study or work in Japan in the foreseeable future, now’s a great time to start planning.

In a draft proposal by the Council for the Creation of Future Education, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that the goal is to attract 400,000 foreign students to Japan from overseas institutions.

The proposal states the country will move toward expanding education in English. They aim to foster international understanding with other nations, and improve support for foreign students looking into post-graduation employment in Japan.

Of course, the first step to study and live in Japan would be to know the basics of Japanese so that you can converse with locals, make purchases and find information you need.

To ensure you’re prepared for your time in Japan, you must take the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test).

What is the JLPT?

Similar to an English language proficiency test, it’s an exam to evaluate your ability to speak, read and write Japanese. 

The test was established in 1984, and was conducted in 15 countries with over 7,000 examinees. Since then, the JLPT has grown to become the largest Japanese language proficiency test in the world, with approximately 610,000 examinees in 62 countries worldwide.

Not all universities require students to take the JLPT, especially if you’re an exchange student. However, if you intend to study and graduate at a Japanese university, it becomes a different story. 

Most universities in Japan require aspiring students to pass at least N2 of the JLPT, the second-highest proficiency available. Regardless, it would be pretty difficult to study in a university if you didn’t know the language the classes are taught in. 

The importance of Japanese proficiency extends beyond classes at university. If you plan to work after graduating in Japan and stay there for an extended time, you will most likely need the JLPT certificate to apply for jobs.

It’s an extremely advantageous certificate to own, and you may even go so far as to receive preferential treatment from employers or government offices if you own a JLPT certificate. An N1, the highest proficiency level of the JLPT, can take you to many places.

To take the JLPT, look up the list of overseas test sites and register for the one accessible to you. 


Many people move to Japan to study and work because of the lifestyle, culture and food there. Source: AFP

The different JLPT levels  and their prerequisites

The JLPT is divided into five levels, with N5 being the most basic, and N1 being the hardest. 

  • N5: A beginner level that tests basic Japanese skills. It’s suitable for those who have just started learning Japanese, and tests their knowledge in simple vocabulary, hiragana, katakana and grammar. 
  • N4: An elementary-level test requiring slightly higher grammar and vocabulary proficiency. Test takers should be able to engage in simple, daily conversations and read and write basic materials. Most importantly, test-takers must be able to pick up information from conversations they hear. 
  • N3: An intermediate level. It’s a steep jump from the previous level, and test-takers should be able to read written Japanese in newspapers or websites. They should be also able to engage in casual conversation and write short essays in casual settings. 
  • N2: Upper-intermediate, and a significant step-up in difficulty from the N3. This level requires a solid understanding of Japanese, enough to comprehend oral materials – such as television programmes, fast conversations or radio – at a natural speed. Most universities and jobs require at least this level of proficiency. 
  • N1: The most complex and challenging JLPT level. Test-takers should essentially be fluent in Japanese, and be able to have conversations with others about any topic. At this level, test-takers should be able to process anything they read and write in academic and business settings, and make the required progression without issue. 

It’s highly advisable that you’re proficient enough in the level that you want to take. There are many Japanese language education centres and online resources that you can learn the language from. Quizlet, Bunpo, and Study Kanji are just some of the apps available for people interested in picking up the language. 


Amirul Harith (second from the right) with his family at his graduation from Teikyo, a Japanese language centre in Malaysia. Source: Amirul Hadith

Top tips to do well in the JLPT from a successful N1 taker

Just like any other exam, there are many ways to prepare for the JLPT. 

Amirul Harith, a Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University graduate, shares how he passed his N1 on the first try.

“I had been studying at a Japanese language school in Malaysia for almost two years at that point, and prepared for the exam well in advance,” says Harith, who attended language classes at Teikyo, with the intention of going abroad to Japan for study and work. He worked hard to prepare for it, and only took the N1 after he was certain he was ready.

“A lot of people take multiple tries to pass the N1, and that’s okay,” he adds reassuringly. 

Harith diligently worked with practice workbooks and past-year exams in the months leading up to the JLPT. He also took to Reddit to read other people’s experiences with the exam and find resources for mock tests. 

“I tried to do at least one test a day, and in the month leading up to the JLPT, I increased the volume of practice I was doing,” he explains. “This helped me get used to the structure of the exam, and also helped me prepare for it as I knew what information to prioritise noting down, such as during the listening section.”

Harith cites the Sou Matome and New Kanzen Master series as his favourite workbooks.

“They’re great because they’re separated into specific sections like grammar, kanji, vocabulary, listening and reading,” he says. He explains that he prioritised the listening and reading activities before all others, as they’re a big part of the JLPT. “The organisation that manages the JLPT also publishes official JLPT workbooks, which are essentially mock tests, which is what I used to see how prepared I was.”

Reviewing was an important part of the process. Harith would note the questions he did wrong, then review them properly with the right grammar or kanji later on. He used reference books and made himself digital and physical flash cards to help with memorisation. 

“Another really useful resource is the Anki app,” he says. “It stimulates flashcards digitally, and is much better at keeping track of information, such as how much I remember something and how often I get it wrong.”

“When a bit of time had passed, I would retake the tests to see if my score improved or if I made the same mistakes again. Repeated mistakes would get extra attention as I tried to wrap my head around why I kept confusing them, and I managed to plug a lot of gaps in my knowledge this way.”

After taking several mock-tests, he pinpointed his weaknesses and worked on them. For example, he felt like he often wasted too much time on the reading section of the exam, and got easily overwhelmed by the amount of text and information. 

Eventually, he found a quick hack – reading the questions first to understand what he was expected to find in the text. After noting down what he needed to find, he would scan the text and underline important information, before composing his answers.

“As I did more and more studying, my reading and comprehension speeds also increased, which helped a lot in dealing with the time pressure of the test,” he says.

To prepare for the listening section in particular, he would try to simulate conditions similar to the actual day itself. 

“Before a question is played, the possible answers are played first, and you only have one go,” he explains. Harith practised for this section by doing the same at home, and stopped himself from pausing and replaying scenes despite being tempted to. 

“My advice for JLPT takers, especially to those that get nervous easily, is that it’s okay to miss a question or two in this listening section,” he says. “Just reset and calm yourself down before the next question, so that you don’t lag behind and miss out even more.”

He adds that he also practised some common tips before his exam, like making sure he was well-rested instead of cramming a few extra hours the night before, and practicing getting to the test location. He also mentions that it was a good idea to bring a watch, especially since he was situated in a seat so far from the hall clock that he couldn’t make out the time properly.

“I also made sure to eat something light for breakfast before the exam, as I find it hard to focus when I have an empty stomach,” he joked. “It’s important to not overeat before the exam because that might make one drowsy as well. I also picked up another tip from a senior at my school: eat something sweet before the exam to get a bit of a boost.”


Veronika Stokke graduated from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, a private university in Beppu. Source: Veronika Stokke

What to do if you fail the JLPT

Veronika Stokke, another Ritsumeikan APU graduate, was unlucky enough to fail her JLPT – twice.

Hailing from Norway, Stokke opted for the N2 exam during her time in Japan. While her course was mostly in English, she thought it would be a good idea to have a decent grasp of the Japanese language as she was staying in Japan for a few years.

“I took advanced-level Japanese classes and studied at least three times a week,” she says. “I studied kanji and grammar by looking at flashcards on Quizlet. In addition, I used Japanese practice books covering N5-N2 to test my level on all JLPT sections.”

After failing her JLPT exam for the first time, she changed her study routine. During her free time, she would watch Japanese grammar videos on YouTube and studied for one to two hours for five days a week. Similar to Harith, she emphasised the importance of mock tests, and encouraged test-takers to work on those.

Unfortunately when she returned to Norway and retook the JLPT, she failed yet again.

“Personally, I’m really bad with memorisation, and kanji needs exactly that,” says Stokke, who cited her reason behind failing twice being the kanji section. “The listening party was easy-peasy lemon-squeezy though.”

Stokke recommends apps like Quizlet, Kanji Cards, Shirabe Jisho and Bunpo. She also watched Japanese dramas with Japanese subtitles to help both listening and reading.

“I do not really recommend watching anime to learn Japanese, especially at a higher level than N4. Anime teaches a lot of vocabulary, but it does not really use ‘formal; Japanese, which is tested at the N2 level,” Stokke advises. She preferred to stick to slice-of-life soap dramas like ‘Doctor X,’ ‘Good Morning Call,’ and whatever was available on Netflix. 

“I also do not recommend Duolingo,” says Stokke while laughing. “I’ve tried it, and just… no.”

Having failed the JLPT twice, Stokke shared some encouraging words for struggling JLPT takers.

“Don’t give up – learning a language is supposed to be fun,” she says. “Of course, both times I failed, I have cried and smacked myself in the face. However, do not let failure diminish your motivation and perception of your skill. Even though I failed the JLPT twice, I know that my Japanese is still really good.”

Even after returning to Norway, Stokke hopes to take the JLPT again at the highest proficiency level. 

“I really like Japan as a country, and I like the Japanese language,” she says.