Note to readers: This post is off the beaten path for this particular blog. You can safely ignore it if you aren’t interested in Japanese study. Its a proof-of-concept for the blog series Writing A Customer-Focused Blog, where you can see the motivation for doing this. In this post, I plug a piece of software called ReadWrite Kanji. I have received neither permission nor compensation for doing so. I am a happy registered user, and am using it to pass a certification exam this December, God willing. Everything which follows this disclaimer, including my representations as to my opinion of the quality of that software, is true. Apologies in advance if it breaks your RSS reader because it contains Japanese characters.

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT, 日本語能力試験) is coming up in December and I’m busy studying for it. I currently hold level 2 (2nd highest of four ranks) and am aiming for level 1, the ikkyuu, the bane of my existence. Lots of the folks I know are currently preparing to try for their very first credential (generally 3kyuu or 2kyuu — taking level 4 is a waste of your time and money, because nobody cares that you have a piece of paper that says you can order a beer). And many of them ask me how I study. So here’s my lazy-programmer-no-Mountain-Dew for you way of passing the JLPT.

Objective: Secure a passing grade on the JLPT. For 1kyuu, this is 70%. For level 2, level 3, and level 4 this is 60%.

Sections to the test: All four tests are scored out of 400 possible points. The points are divided as follows: 100 points for kanji/vocabulary, 100 points for listening comprehension, 200 points for reading comprehension and grammar.

The key to passing the JLPT: The listening comprehension section is a joke. If you can speak Japanese with any proficiency at all relative to your level, expect to pick up 80 points there without batting an eyelid (the only exception is if you are a heritage Chinese speaker who is aiming at a level above your genuine ability and hoping to get through on the strength of your kanji skills: you probably have things well under control, but are outside the realm of my experience).

Thats 80 points out of the 240 you need for levels 2 through 4, which means you need to average a whopping 160 out of 300 on the rest of the test, which is slightly better than 50%. You can do this. (If you’re studying for 1kyuu, you need 200 instead: still easily possible if you’re willing to devote a lot of time and effort.) The key is to master as many kanji as possible.

What does it mean to master a kanji? There are four skills for studying a kanji: you need to know what it means as a general concept, which isn’t specifically tested by any question but will certainly help you out on reading comprehension (particularly the comprehension of a sentence-in-isolation questions, since in the passages you can generally get by on context cues). You need to be able to associate the kanji with its readings, both on-yomi (Chinese reading) and kun-yomi. And you need to be able to be able to take the readings and work back to the kanji, not a kanji which kinda-sorta looks like the kanji, but the correct kanji.

There are a lot of ways to achieve this level of mastery. One is to be born in Japan. Missed the boat? Well, you could read a lot of authentic Japanese texts. Of course, odds are if you’re taking the JLPT you a) can’t read anything of importance yet and b) if you can, it won’t be testing words that are on the JLPT (sorry, anime/manga fans, the intersection between 3kyuu and your favorite series is probably about 3 words). And then there’s rote memorization.

People hate rote memorization, and they hate getting up every day and doing 20 minutes of kanji practice. But if you do it, and if you start early enough, you’ll steamroll the JLPT. Sure, study your grammar books so you’ll be able to impress people with your writing ability later on in life, but you can be batting 25% on those questions (random guessing, essentially) and you’ll still squeak by if you know the kanji.

Note, master is not the same as “Yeah, I’ve seen that one”. Let me give you an example of one type of question the JLPT asks:

山田さんは明日から出張へ行きます。(This one is level 3, incidentally.)

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to pick the correct reading for the underlined kanji. No problem, shucho, right? Ahh, but see, the Japanese test writers are tricky, because your four answers for this question WILL be:


Yep, this is designed to screw you up if you don’t understand long Japanese vowel sounds versus short ones, or if you can’t hear the glottal stop. The test takers know these are difficult for most foreign learners of the Japanese language, thats why this problem (and about a dozen that are going to ask you the same thing except with different kanji) are on the test.

So how well do you know your kanji really? You know your kanji well when you can wake up every day for a week and nail that problem. No hesitation, no fudging, no peaking at the other side of your flashcard and saying “Oh, yeah, I knew that”: you look at that problem for 3 seconds and say BAM its しゅっちょう and none other. Achieving this level of mastery can be done with flashcards, but since flashcards require some complicated system for sorting them into “mastered”, “not seen yet”, and “iffy” I used to end up wasting as much time sorting or studying old kanji as I did studying new ones. Amazing I passed the 2kyuu at all, really. And really, all the books in the world (I think my collection approaches $200 at the moment, not counting general purpose dictionaries and textbooks — $200 on books I bought just to pass my exams) can be useful for learning the kanji the first time, but for mastering them you can’t beat daily practice with a set of flashcards.

Until now, anyhow. This year, for getting the 1kyuu, my inside track on the kanji is this program called ReadWrite Kanji. Dumb name, great stuff. Its like flashcards on your PC (or Palm, which would be great for a train ride if I actually owned a Palm — guess I’ll have to “study” on my DS instead on next week’s 3 hour trip to Tokyo). Every day when I wake up, I check my email, put on a pot of tea, and then practice kanji for 15 minutes. ReadWrite Kanji runs me through a half dozen different types of drills for each kanji, and remembers all the ones I flub up. And it asks me them the next day, and the next, until I get them all perfect. Then it replaces that kanji that I just learned with a new one from the pile (handily organized in the order Japanese schoolkids learn them, which is more-or-less the same order you need to know them for the JLPT).

Don’t take my word for it, though, try out their trial and you can practice the excercizes with a set of kanji you probably already know. If you want to get all the kanji (enough to study every level of the JLPT), it costs $120. Whoops, sorry, that was my freshman year Japanese textbooks. No, its actually $16. Yeah, I know, a heck of a lot cheaper than failing a test with a $80 admission fee and having to wait until next year to take it again.

Oh, and if you’re studying for level 3 and the kana are still giving you trouble, the same company sells ReadWrite Hiragana and ReadWrite Katakana. Their inventiveness in naming stuff amazes me. Anyhow, if you buy all three in a bundle its only $32. If for some reason you only wanted the two kana things its $19.20 but come on, you’re in Japanese for the long haul (or should be, for the amount of work you’re putting into it) and with only kana you’re not even good enough to be called functionally illiterate.

I think later this week I’ll post some more about the different types of grammar questions. Good luck on studying everyone, and a big ganbatte come December. Anyhow, try out that kanji software, you’ll be glad you did.

Editor’s note: There will not actually be another installment.