Passing the JLPT N1: what you need to know

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person sitting at a desk with JLPT N1 books laying flat on the corner.

It can be very difficult to start studying for JLPT N1 (Japanese Language Proficiency Test). This is because the gap in difficulty from N2 to N1 is huge and it can take students between one to three years to go from JLPT N2 to N1. To pass the test you need to have a proper study plan and be consistent in your studies over a long period.

Let’s tackle the beast called JLPT N1. Read on if you want to learn how to conquer JLPT N1.

An Introduction to JLPT

The JLPT is a standardized multiple-choice test that was introduced in 1984 and has since become the most widely-taken Japanese language test in the world.

The exam is widely recognized in Japan as an indicator of Japanese language comprehension. Most universities and Japanese employers use it in screenings when accepting foreign students or hiring foreign workers. Passing a JLPT exam is also valid for meeting the government’s 150-hour study requirement.

There are five levels of the JLPT, with N5 being the most basic level and N1 the most difficult. You do not have to pass a certain level before moving on to the next level. For example, you do not have to pass the N2 before you can attempt the N1 exam.

Each exam tests you on four things: reading comprehension, grammar, vocabulary, and listening.

In Japan, the exam is held twice a year – once in July and once in December. There are also many overseas testing sites, but not all of them offer the chance to take the test twice a year.

Visit the JLPT website for the latest information on where the testing sites are and when the exam is offered in a location near you.

Why take the JLPT N1 exam?

You might ask yourself: “The JLPT N2 is enough to get me employed and into university, so why should I work so hard to take the JLPT N1 exam?”. The thing is you are competing with other applicants, and if you have a JLPT N1 certificate, your employer will know that your Japanese is about twice as advanced compared to your rivals who only have a JLPT N2 certificate.

If you intend to study at a university, you will be better prepared to write essays and reports, as well as read scientific papers if you have passed JLPT N1. You will struggle less in class the more Japanese you have studied beforehand.
Finally, if your ambition is to become fluent in Japanese, having JLPT N1 as your first goal is helpful. The reason is that when you are at this level, it’s easy to fall into the trap where you sufficiently perform your hobbies and everyday needs in Japanese, and consequently feel satisfied and naturally stop learning.

However, when studying for JLPT N1, you must go beyond your interests and hobbies, and become proficient in various areas. You need to understand economic lingo, law terminology, sports-specific terms, and so on. Studying for JLPT N1 forces you out of your comfort zone and grants you the knowledge to hold your own in areas you normally wouldn’t explore, pushing you further towards that goal of Japanese fluency.

JLPT N1 workbooks on a desk.

What does the JLPT N1 exam test on?

The jump from JLPT N2 to JLPT N1 is as huge as taking the jump from complete beginner to passing the JLPT N2. The JLPT N1 test is so hard that some Japanese people struggle with it as well. You are required to read between the lines and understand finer nuances in texts. The most difficult challenge might be to understand all the kanji that Japanese people study up until university. Not only that, you need to be able to complete the test swiftly as the time limits provide little time to stop thinking.

To pass the JLPT N1 you need to:

  • Understand all 2136 commonly used kanji (常用漢字, jōyō kanji) and about 15000 words. (Roughly half of what a native speaker knows before university.)
  • Be able to read written materials with profound content on various topics and follow their narratives as well as understand the writer’s intent.
  • Understand writings with logical complexity and/or abstract writings on a variety of topics, such as newspaper editorials and critiques, and comprehend both their structures and contents.
  • Comprehend orally presented materials such as coherent conversations, news reports, and lectures, spoken at natural speed in a broad variety of settings. One should also understand the essential points, the logical structures, and the relationships among the people in the conversation.

Structure of the exam

The JLPT N1 test is divided into two sections, each section has an allotted time limit. Here is what you will be tested on in each section:

Language knowledge – vocabulary, grammar, and reading (110 minutes)

In the vocabulary section you will be tested on:

  • The reading of words in kanji
  • The meaning of words defined by context
  • Words and expressions with similar meanings
  • The correct usage of words in sentences

In the grammar and reading section, you will be tested on:

  • Grammar formats that best suit sentences
  • Accurate sentence composition 
  • Suitability of sentences for text flow
  • Comprehension of short and mid-size passages on a range of different topics
  • Comprehension of long passages of text on different topics
  • Integrated comprehension (understanding that which is not written and drawing conclusions based on the contents of the text)
  • Thematic comprehension of long passages
  • Ability to retrieve information from materials, such as notices

Listening (55 minutes)

In the listening section, you will be tested on:

  • Ability to comprehend necessary information to resolve specific issues and understand the appropriate action to take
  • Ability to narrow down points based on necessary information presented in advance
  • Comprehension of the general outline in longer conversations
  • Ability to choose the right responses by listening to short phrases, such as questions and greetings
  • Integrated comprehension (draw conclusions based on the full contents of the passage) 

Scoring on the exam

To pass any JLPT exam, you need two things:

  1. Your total score needs to be at or above the overall points required to pass (the “overall pass mark”) AND
  2. Your score in each section must be at or above the points required to pass each section (the “sectional pass mark”)

If you fail to achieve the passing mark for any section, then you fail the entire exam even if you have reached the total overall points needed to pass.

For JLPT N1, the sectional pass marks are as follows:

  • Language knowledge (Vocabulary and Grammar): 19/60 points
  • Reading: 19/60 points
  • Listening: 19/60 points

In total, you need to achieve 100/180 points

Registering for the exam

If you’re in Japan and would like to register for the JLPT N1, you can apply online about three to four months before the scheduled exam date. You can read more about the process in our article here.

If you’re not in Japan, you will need to find your local test site and register with them directly. You can find a list of overseas test sites on the official JLPT website.

The fee you need to pay will vary depending on location and the level you’re taking.

Preparing for the JLPT N1

It’s not immediately obvious how to approach the JLPT N1 when you are studying. More than likely you will feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of new vocabulary, kanji, and other things that you need to learn to pass the test. When you are at this level, you may want to stray off the beaten path and integrate other methods of learning Japanese into your daily habits. Here are a few general tips:

Read more

Reading is one of the most important things to achieve the fluency required to pass the N1 test. If books make you fall asleep, one idea is to try other interactive media and for example, play games with a lot of text such as JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games) or VNs (Virtual Novels). Reading a lot develops an ability to tell if a sentence “sounds weird”. And this gut feeling will help you pass the N1 test.

When you read, it is a good idea to alternate between active reading (looking up unfamiliar words) and passive reading (for immersion and comprehension speed). Just keep at it and after a couple of months, you will surely notice improvement.

Explore new horizons

Imagine that each area is accompanied by its own set of vocabulary. For example, if you are into sports, you will learn sports-related vocabulary. If you are a programmer, you learn vocabulary specific to that, and so on.

The JLPT N1 expects you to learn a massive 15,000 words in total, which is roughly about half of the vocabulary a native Japanese person understands. This means that you need to become proficient in many different areas. To achieve this, it’s highly recommended to explore new horizons and not only perform your hobbies and study with JLPT books. Find various sources of Japanese, read books in different genres, and try out new things in life where you’ll acquire new sets of vocabulary. 

Study kanji

There is no way around it. Studying kanji as you read books or other materials is essential for passing the test. JLPT N1 expects you to learn about 1150 new kanji which is more than all the kanji you studied up until JLPT N2.

For this reason, you need to find a good way of studying kanji that works for you. Considering that you will be doing this for a long time, it’s paramount that you find your chosen method of studying fun and engaging.

One way to not lose interest is to try keeping things fresh by using different sources of materials to study kanji. For example, we recommend giving the Kanji Kentei a shot. The Kanji Kentei is a test designed for Japanese nationals and tests you on all kinds of things related to kanji. It’s very different from the kanji tests you take in school and a fun way to learn kanji differently. For more information on the Kanji Kentei as well as techniques of memorizing kanji, see our article here.

Mock exams

Finally, it is recommended to crunch mock exams. Try doing as many N1 mock exams as you can, and try pretending each one is the real test. E.g. don’t cheat, try to be done within the allotted timeframes, and don’t forget to review afterward! Also, don’t neglect to do the listening part!

JLPT N1 workbook being held in a metal rack.

Useful JLPT study materials

First, it’s recommended to download a good flashcard app such as Anki, and a good dictionary app. We recommend Takoboto for Android and imiwa? for Apple.

Here are some useful materials for studying for JLPT N1:

If you don’t like learning with digital materials, there are a lot of JLPT N1 preparation books too. Some popular ones are: Nihongo Sou Matome, Shin Nihongo, and TRY!

Study Japanese in Japan

Studying Japanese at a language school in Japan is by far the best way to learn the language and prepare for the JLPT exam. If you have the means to, nothing beats immersive learning in the country where the language is spoken. Going to class every day and interacting with the language all the time means you will reach learning milestones quickly.

Go! Go! Nihon helps you to apply for language schools in Japan and all our school partners offer courses on various levels. Many also support their students in working toward JLPT exams. Visit our school’s page to see the institutions we partner with across Japan, and get in touch if you would like to begin your application.

Take an online course

Many of the JLPT N1 texts and listening comprehension passages test your ability to understand Japanese in a business environment.
For this reason, we recommend trying out our Online Business Course Bundle in cooperation with the Intercultural Institute of Japan. By studying business Japanese, not only do you prepare yourself for future employment, but you also gain useful knowledge for taking the N1 exam. Right now, you can try the first three chapters completely for free!

What to expect on the day of the exam

Before the exam day, you will receive a test voucher from the organizers. This voucher dictates the location and which room you’re in on exam day.

In the exam room, you are only allowed to bring writing utensils. You will only be allowed to use a pencil to record your answers. You can also have a watch with you, but it must be analog. We recommend bringing a wristwatch, as there may not be any clocks in the room.

You get short breaks between each section of the exam, which you can use to go to the toilet, go outside for a breather, or have some food and drinks. 

When the exam is finished, you must wait until all test papers have been collected before you can leave the room. When the time is up, you must immediately drop your pen and stop writing. Failing to do so is likely to get you disqualified!

Note that this is just a general overview of the process if you’re taking the JLPT in Japan. Processes at overseas testing sites may differ.

When to expect your results

If you’re taking the test in Japan, you can expect your results in about two months. You can view your results through the JLPT online portal.

Those taking the exam outside of Japan can expect results in two to three months, although details will vary by country.

Ace the JLPT N1 with Go! Go! Nihon

Don’t underestimate the time required to pass the JLPT N1. Consider it the finish line of your journey of studying Japanese, and don’t give up! Once you pass the JLPT N1, you will have reached a level where you can live, work and study in Japan without effort. You can also read Japanese literature, and science articles, hold your own in a business environment, and much more. We believe in you!

The best way to pass the JLPT N1 is to live in Japan and study at a language school. Go! Go! Nihon offers support for applying to Japanese language schools in Japan. We also have a range of online courses in partnership with some of the best language schools in Japan.

Don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions, or to begin your application!

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