JLPT Drawbacks

When I first moved back to the States after my time in Japan, studying for the JLPT seemed like a great way to motivate myself to keep my hard-won skills from deteriorating. And in fact, it did just that: the year I spent studying for N3 was one of the most productive of my Japanese career. I learned a ton of new grammar by looking up things on the JLPT “should know” lists floating out there, vocab, and tons of kanji through WaniKani (this was before I had a baby and a three year break and ended up resetting my account in case you’re wondering why I’m so low level). And I passed the test! Woo hoo!

So now I’m thinking about studying for the next level.

But I have heard some people–most recently Paula from ShinpaiDeshou on the Tofugu podcast–say that unless you’re goal is to work in a Japanese company, JLPT isn’t necessarily the right path.

I’m curious to hear more about that. Why is JLPT only somewhat useful? How is it limited or ineffective? My goal is to get into translation; is there a better path to fluency?


It just depends what your goals are. N2 and N1 have lots of less common grammar points, usually ones that are rather formal, literary, or just extremely limited in functionality. And you have to know hundreds of them. Most people just want to be conversationally competent in Japanese, or read manga aimed at general audiences, etc, and thus taking the higher level JLPTs can involve lots of study of stuff that isn’t used in those contexts.

But if you want to be a translator, you’re probably going to need to be at that level at some point anyway, so JLPT doesn’t seem like a diversion from the goal.


JLPT by itself isn’t really a path to fluency. The exams have a lot of problems - they don’t really reflect day to day usage of Japanese very well, are too focused on “gotcha” kind of grammar and kanji questions rather than rewarding real comprehension, and crucially, they don’t have a speaking or writing section. These are, perhaps unsurprisingly, similar to the problems with English-language exams in Japan, and the outcome is the same - it’s quite common to meet people who passed JLPT N1 and can’t hold an ordinary conversation, and also possible to meet people who are very proficient in Japanese but would likely fail N1. Moreover, N1 is really only a starting point for fluency; there’s a lot of important vocabulary, grammar etc. that isn’t in the N1 exam, so it’s not like you can pass it and then say “okay, cool, I’ve cleared the last boss of Japanese”.

However, that doesn’t mean JLPT is useless by any means. It’s a useful milestone along the road, and while it doesn’t constitute fluency in itself, you do need to know everything on the JLPT exam (plus other stuff!) to reach a point of decent fluency. I see a lot of people online claiming that there’s a lot of grammar etc. in the higher JLPT levels which isn’t regularly used in Japanese, and honestly from personal experience I think that’s an over-simplification at best - everything on N2 is absolutely standard day-to-day Japanese, and while N1 has some more unusual or rare grammar points, you will encounter these regularly enough if you want to be able to read newspapers, novels, textbooks, official documents etc.

In short - if you’re really keen on getting to a point of high proficiency (or “fluency”, though I’m really wary of that word), studying for the JLPT is an excellent way of getting through a lot of the material you’ll need. Just be aware that it’s not enough on its own, and you also need to be working on speaking, reading and picking up more casual / informal language patterns (or specialised vocab for your fields of interest).


Pretty much what @Leebo said.

One more word of caution: N1 is nowhere near enough to be a translator (but it’s on the right path).

A better scale to compare things is the CEFR. Lowest level of proficiency is A1, then A2, B1, B2, C1 and finally C2.

The JLPT N1 is (based on your score) between B2 and C1, which corresponds to “functional fluency”. To be a translator, though, you will need mastery, which is C2. You will need to find your own resources and study goals to reach that point.


I hear people say this, but I can’t say I’ve met any of these people.

I guess it hinges on what is meant by “common.” And “ordinary conversation.”


Well, we haven’t formally met, but I was in that case until one year ago, when I started focusing more on conversation.

Granted, I’m just one point of data, so it’s only anecdotal evidence.

What standard are you putting “ordinary conversation” at. I just find it hard to imagine someone who has passed N1 (and thus has excellent passive vocabulary and listening skills) couldn’t make it through a conversation in Japanese, unless it started to get technical or something, thus pulling it out of “ordinary” range.

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I guess I probably run into more cases like this than usual since I’m at a Japanese university with a very high number of students from other East Asian countries, and the “N1 but struggles with conversation” issue seems to be most common among Chinese learners. It’s probably a combination of their advantage in kanji along with their education system being very focused on rote-learning for exams. Often they’ve crammed studying for JLPT levels and done nothing else along the way; no conversation practice, no writing assignments.

Edit: I should also note that I think the way the JLPT changed when they moved to the new N-levels has done these people a disservice; the listening portions of the N2 and N1 exams are now incredibly simple compared to the rest of the test, so “N1 listening ability” won’t give you the capacity to follow a class taught in Japanese even if your “N1 reading ability” allows you to follow the textbook.

I’m putting it at the “usual” level. As in what we are doing right now.

I was able to understand 90%+ of what was told to me, but I was unable to answer.

(In practice, I was able to, just taking waaaaaaaaaay more time that would be reasonable to keep the flow of conversation going).

I guess that’s a different pool of JLPT takers, sure. I only tend to meet other English-speakers among people taking the JLPT, and I live in Japan so usually the ones who have passed N1 are spending time talking to Japanese people regularly anyway.

I don’t really see a problem with the content of listening questions being easier than the content of written questions, because that’s just the nature of listening, that you only get one chance and that makes it harder by default.

I guess the fact that I got comfortable conversationally while I was at a lower level is just biasing my image of it.

You don’t need N1 level Japanese to translate, but you probably need that level of fluency or higher to be a full-time, professional translator. I get paid to translate periodically, and I would likely fail N1 (again) if I took it today. However, I’m also real slow and probably couldn’t make a living at it right now because of that. Translation is mostly research in my experience.

I’ve done a number of translations for a prominent architecture phd at Tokyo University over the last two years (note that I have no background in architecture). In the past, I did 60 university pages on sexual harassment (real tough) and a variety of other stuff.

That’s also one thing about the JLPT, it only tests for input skills (reading, listening).

I love reading, so I was more biased toward those skills.
At the same time, I am extremely self-conscious about making mistakes (the one thing people tell you to stop to be able to make progress in a language).

I had the exact same experience when learning to speak English, by the way. At some point, thanks to reading comprehension, I got a score of 985 on the TOEIC (highest is 990), but it took me YEARS (and living in the US) to finally be able to speak.

Drink more alcohol.


I agree you don’t need the certification itself. But you need at least that level of proficiency, or, as you say, you won’t be efficient enough to make a living out of it.
My impression was that OP wanted to be a professional translator. Re-reading, the professional part is indeed not mentioned.

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Haha, yeah, I’ve been told that multiple times.
Sadly, a few drinks somehow put my brain into hyperdrive mode and make me fear I am making EVEN MORE mistakes.
More than a few drinks, and I am not coherent enough to hold a good conversation anyway.
I have yet to find a sweet spot between the two. (Gotta keep on trying I guess :roll_eyes: )

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Ever thought about paying for some online classes? Recently I developed this theory that by actually paying, you end up feeling less self-conscious as it resembles more of a learning experience and not so much of a social experience one (when there’s more expectations). Speaking to yourself might help getting those words out too (AKA shows you that you can do it).

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I have heard of these kinds of people too, but I always figured they were just the same as me, people who never spoke. Im nowhere near N1, but I’d imagine if I got all my other skills to that level and still didn’t practice speaking, I wouldn’t be good enough to say I can hold a conversation. Conversations are two way things, so being blocked by your inability to put thoughts into japanese would make conversation impossible.

I’m curious if these type of people haven’t practiced writing either.

Writing but no speaking vs no writing nor speaking.

Yeah, I don’t think I’ve met very many English speakers with N1 who weren’t also good at conversational Japanese - which makes sense, since language education in those countries is usually heavily focused on conversation.

That said - compared to the huge numbers of Chinese, Koreans and other East Asians who have N1, I don’t really meet very many English speakers with N1 at all… I wonder what the actual stats are in terms of nationalities who hold N1?