Understanding the JLPT

Understanding the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT)

If you’ve been studying Japanese, you’ve likely heard of the “JLPT”. JLPT stands for “Japanese-Language Proficiency Test” and is a standardized test foreigners can take to demonstrate their level of Japanese ability.

While there are other similar tests, the JLPT is the most common and is recognized globally. JLPT certification of a certain level can even be a necessary requirement for jobs or other applications. 

It’s split into 5 levels of tests, and when you sign up you’ll choose the level you’re aiming for. N5 is the easiest level and N1 is the most difficult. 

Overview of the test

At all 5 levels, the JLPT is entirely a multiple-choice test.

Common to all 5 levels

Because the test is multiple-choice, there is no speaking or writing portion. Instead each test focuses on these four aspects of the Japanese language: vocabulary, grammar, reading, and listening. 

The way these four aspects are split up varies slightly depending on the test (especially in regards to time allotted), but all tests finish with a dedicated listening section. Between each test section, you’ll have a break.

In order to pass, you’ll likely want to dedicate study time ー and even study materials such as textbooks ー to each of the four aspects. 


If you’re relatively new to Japanese (and especially if you’re new to kanji/Chinese characters) it’s recommended that you first aim for the N5 level test. 

Based on the official JLPT website, at the N5 level one can “read and understand typical expressions and sentences written in hiragana, katakana, and basic kanji” as well as ” listen and comprehend conversations about topics regularly encountered in daily life and classroom situations… spoken slowly”. Essentially, you can understand very basic Japanese.

The test is split into three sections with two breaks. The first section is 20 minutes and is just vocabulary. The second section is 40 minutes and includes both grammar and reading. The last section, the listening section, is 30 minutes.

Here is a brief preview of what kind of material will be on the test:

All the JLPT levels require some kanji knowledge. For the N5, it’s around 100 kanji. This includes knowing multiple vocabulary words for each kanji, as applicable. 

For vocabulary and grammar it’s less definitive, but various sites say you’re expected to know around 800 vocabulary words (total, including kanji words) and around 60 grammar points. (In general, it’s less clear exactly what grammar you’ll need to know.)

The vocabulary and grammar will naturally also come up in the reading and listening sections. If you want a preview of the kinds of reading and listening questions there are, check out these official sample questions. Wherever it says クリック, click to see the relevant material for the question.


The N4 is the next step up from N5. On the official JLPT website, N4 and N5 are described similarly; it says for N4 “one is able to read and understand passages on familiar daily topics written in basic vocabulary and kanji” and in addition “listen and comprehend conversations encountered in daily life and generally follow their contents [when] spoken slowly.” Thus N4 is still considered fairly basic Japanese.

This test is longer than the N5, but is split up in a similar way; the first section is just vocabulary, the second is grammar and reading, and the last is just listening. The lengths of each section are 25 minutes, 55 minutes, and 35 minutes respectively. You get a break between each section.

As for what you’ll need to know for the test: The N4 requires knowledge of approximately 300 kanji and 1,500 vocabulary words (including those used on the N5). It’s more difficult to find a ballpark for how many grammar points you’ll need to know, but a couple resources put the number at a bit over 100 new points.


When you get to the N3, you’re at the intermediate level. 

If you pass, officially you’re described as being able to: “read and understand written materials with specific contents concerning everyday topics”, “grasp summary information such as newspaper headlines”, “read slightly difficult writings encountered in everyday situations and understand the main points”, and “listen and comprehend coherent conversations in everyday situations, spoken at near-natural speed [while identifying] the relationships among the people involved.” 

The relationship of speakers is revealed through the formality of their speech. More formal Japanese such as “sonkeigo” is introduced at the N3 level and will become more crucial the farther you advance in your Japanese. The number of casual expressions you need to know will also increase.

The N3 is split up similarly to the N5 and N4. The vocabulary section is 30 minutes, the grammar and reading section is 70 minutes, and the listening section is 40 minutes. You again get a break in-between each section, which gives you two breaks.

For the N3: you’ll need to know around 650 kanji and 3,700 words total. This is about double what you need for the N4! There is no definitive list for how many grammar points you need to know, but one source claims it includes 150 new points, which would also be around double.


The N2 is often described as “business-level” Japanese. Many Japanese companies will consider your Japanese sufficient to work with them ー entirely in Japanese!

The JLPT website says someone at the N2 level can “read materials written clearly on a variety of topics, such as articles and commentaries in newspapers and magazines as well as simple critiques”, “follow their narratives as well as understand the intent of the writers”, and “comprehend orally presented materials such as coherent conversations and news reports, spoken at nearly natural speed in everyday situations… [and] understand the relationships among the people involved.”

N2 material expands further into very formal Japanese. This is only natural since that level of formality is expected in a Japanese workplace.

Contrary to the previous levels, the N2 is split up into two testing sections; the first is a combined vocabulary, reading, and grammar section at a whopping 105 minutes, and the second is a listening section which is 50 minutes. Since there are only two sections, you will only get one break.

For the N2: you’ll need to know around 1,000 kanji and 6,000 vocabulary words total. There are also 200-250 new grammar points. This would put you at over 500 grammar points total.


The N1 is the highest level of the JLPT. While someone who passed the N1 might not actually be “fluent” (especially since speaking is not on the test), it’s assumed that such a person can handle Japanese situations without difficulty. A variety of opportunities require JLPT certification, and achieving the N1 potentially gives you access to all of them!

The official JLPT website describes the N1 level as being “able to read writings with logical complexity and/or abstract writings on a variety of topics… and comprehend both their structures and contents”, “follow… narratives as well as understand the intent of the writers comprehensively”, and “comprehend orally presented materials such as coherent conversations, news reports, and lectures, spoken at natural speed in a broad variety of settings, and is able to follow their ideas and comprehend their contents comprehensively”.

Nuance and understanding arguments is a main focus of the N1. The test incorporates essays and other writings not specifically devised for the test, giving you the most realistic depiction of complex Japanese.

Like the N2, the N1 is divided into two sections; a combined vocabulary, reading, and grammar section which is allotted 110 minutes, and a listening section which is given 55 minutes. Again, you will only get one break between those sections.

Material that may be on the N1 includes:

  • Around 2,000 kanji, which essentially covers the kanji that commonly show up in Japanese newspapers (called “jouyou kanji”). That’s double what you need to know for N2, though many of the later kanji have more restricted usage and shouldn’t take as long to learn.
  • You’ll also need to know around 10,000 vocabulary words total. There is no definitive list for grammar, but I saw speculated numbers like “130” or “150” new points.

While the increase in grammar is not as drastic as that of kanji and vocabulary, the crucial thing about grammar at the N1 level is understanding the nuance between similar grammar. It would be beneficial to review old grammar to prepare, especially if you find yourself struggling with grammar-related questions on N1 practice tests. 

A Huge List of Japanese Language Resources
Check out our huge list of resources for Japanese language learning at the link above.

What can the JLPT be used for?

With the overview, you should now have a better idea of what the JLPT is. But what is the practical reason for taking the test?

Many people study for the JLPT to get a clearer picture of their Japanese progress and level. However, that’s not all it can be used for ー it can also open up opportunities! These are general guidelines about those opportunities and their required levels, so please research on your own to find out what level is needed for your personal goal.


You may be able to find job listings at any of the JLPT levels. However, jobs asking for N5 and N4 certification are most likely temporary and/or low-paying.

The majority of long-term jobs conducted primarily in Japanese will ask for at least N2 certification. This is because N2 is considered “business-level Japanese”. Naturally an N1 certification will look even more appealing on a resume. This doesn’t mean you should take job acceptance for granted though  ー the interview process is long and will push the limits of your formal Japanese, both speech and etiquette!

If you’d like to try finding opportunities with an N3 certification, anecdotally there’s two main options. One is to look for jobs in countries other than Japan. If a country doesn’t have as many Japanese speakers available, they may have lower standards. Their priority would be to hire someone who is able to do business with Japanese people, even if their Japanese isn’t perfect. In such cases, Japanese would probably not be the main language of the workplace.

The other option is to work a highly in-demand job that largely uses English. I’ve heard of engineers and programmers who were able to work at Japanese companies with the N3. This is presumably because programming is largely in English anyway, and companies are more concerned about good code rather than interpersonal communication.

Another in-demand field that largely uses English is: English teaching. If you teach English at an “eikaiwa” (English conversation school) or as an ALT (assistant language teacher), you don’t need to pass the JLPT at all! (Although the ALT company Altia offers a small bonus for passing the JLPT.) 

This means there are jobs related to Japan available at every skill level, so it doesn’t hurt to explore!


Many Japanese Language schools located in Japan will require you to pass the N5 (or equivalent test) in order to register. Since the schools are conducted entirely in Japanese, they require a basic level of Japanese. (While the teachers will try to stick to Japanese-only, textbook materials will have English translations, and dictionaries are allowed.)

If you’re interested in a 専門学校 or “senmongakkou”, the standard requirement is to achieve N2 certification. “Senmongakkou” literally means “specialty school” and is basically a vocational school. There are a variety of fields you can pursue at these kinds of schools, including: illustration, theater, hospitality, and translation. 

Both undergraduate and graduate schools most typically require N1 certification to take classes entirely in Japanese. This is especially true for certain fields and higher ranking universities. (For example, all graduate programs at Waseda University listed here with the exception of “Environment and Energy Engineering” require the N1.) 


If you’re planning to live in Japan, especially long-term, a JLPT certification can even be an advantage.

In order to get a “Specified Skill Worker” visa, not only do you need to work in one of the qualifying fields, but you need to obtain at least N4 certification. With this visa, you can work in Japan for up to 5 years.

To qualify as a “Highly Skilled Professional”, you need “70 points” total. An N2 certification gives you 10 points and an N1 certification gives you 15 points. The benefits of this status are: a longer term visa (5 years with the possibility of renewal), a quicker pathway to becoming a permanent resident, and the ability to bring family over on your visa. 

JLPT Scoring

If you’ve decided to take the test and decided the level you’re aiming for, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how to pass. 

The grading system on the JLPT is fairly unique. All of the JLPT levels are scored on a 0-180 point scale, but the conditions for passing vary from level to level. 

If you’d like to see the breakdown of the requirements to pass on the official website, you can find that at this link. There it is laid out in charts. Here I will explain in detail what those charts mean.

N5 scoring

On the N5, the scores for vocabulary, grammar, and reading are collected together for a maximum of 120 points. The listening portion accounts for the last 60 potential points (120 + 60 = 180).

Your combined score for vocabulary, grammar, and reading must be a minimum of 38 out of 120 points to pass. This is slightly less than one-third of the possible score! At the same ratio, the listening score must be a minimum of 19 out of 60 points.

You might assume this means that the lowest score you can get and still pass is 38 + 19 = 57. However, this is not true. While those are the minimums for each section, your overall score must be at least 80.

To rephrase, it is possible to get the minimum score on one section and still pass, but in return, your other section will have to compensate for the low score. For example, you could get 38 points on the combined section, but you’d have to get at least (80 – 38 =) 42 points on the listening section. Conversely, you could get 19 points on the listening section, but would need (80 – 19 =) 61 points on the combined section.

Either way, it’s best not to wager on getting the minimum score on a section. Aim for getting at least half the questions right, and you should be in a pretty good position to pass.

N4 scoring

The scoring on the N4 works similarly to that of the N5.

Again, vocabulary, grammar, and reading are graded together, and must be a minimum of 38 out of 120 points to pass. Listening also must be a minimum of 19 out of 60.

However, the lowest possible score you can get overall yet still pass is at a higher level ー you must get at least 90 points on the test. That’s exactly half the maximum score.

This means that, at minimum, if you get 38 on the combined section, you’ll need to get (90 – 38 =) 52 on the listening section. Or if you get 19 on the listening section, you’ll need to get (90 – 19 =) 71 on the combined section.

N3 scoring

From the N3 level and up to the N1 level, the sections are split up differently when grading. Instead: vocabulary and grammar are scored together for a maximum of 60 points, reading is scored separately for a maximum of 60 points, and listening is scored separately for a maximum of 60 points. 

Also for N3 through N1, each section needs a minimum of 19 points to pass. 

For the N3, the overall score must be at least 95. This means you can get about one-third of the questions right for one section, but your overall score must be more than half the possible points.

N2 scoring

Like the N3, when the N2 is scored the four aspects are split in three groups: vocabulary and grammar are scored together for a maximum of 60 points, reading is scored separately for a maximum of 60 points, and listening is scored separately for a maximum of 60 points. In addition, each grouping needs a minimum score of 19 points in order to pass.

On the N2, your overall score must be at least 90 ー exactly half the maximum score. While this is lower than the requirement for N3, this doesn’t mean the N2 is easier than the N3, since the material is more difficult.

N1 scoring

The N1 requirements to pass are similar to that of the N3 and N2; you must get a minimum of 19 points on each of the three sections. Those three sections are split into: vocabulary and grammar, reading, and listening.

However, the N1 has the highest requirement for the overall score ー you must get at least 100 out of 180 possible points. You’ll definitely want to be diligent about preparing for each section to give yourself the best shot at passing!

As I’ve alluded to earlier, you’ll want to focus on each aspect of the test to maximize your likelihood of passing. Especially if there’s any particular area you struggle with, I recommend studying from resources dedicated to specific skills.


Mastering the kanji for your test level will greatly help you in the vocabulary and reading sections. While kanji seems daunting at first, once you get in the habit you’ll be able to add new words to your arsenal and skim for meaning in passages much quicker.

If you’re a kanji beginner ー or if you struggle with learning kanji ー you’ll first want to build a good foundation. This means learning picture associations and radicals. (And before continuing reading, you may want to take a look at this article.)

Many kanji (especially the oldest kanji) were originally pictographs. This means they were adapted from the actual appearance of something and changed into characters. 

Once you know to look for pictures in the kanji, some become fairly obvious; for example, 川 means “river” and looks somewhat like a river, especially when you look at its older versions:

image source: Wiktionary

A great textbook that takes this fact into account is Kanji Look and Learn. They’ve done the work of giving you clear picture associations, so you’re not just trying to remember random lines. Here’s an example with the kanji 女, meaning “woman”:

They also demonstrate the strokes and give you common words that use those kanji, which is crucial. The book includes 512 kanji, including all the kanji you’d need for N5 and N4, and many of the kanji for N3! If you’d like to practice those kanji in the context of a sentence ー which often greatly bolsters learning ー you’ll have to get their separate workbook.

To help with long-term kanji learning, you’ll also want to know radicals. Radicals are smaller parts within a kanji that repeat in multiple other kanji. For example, the radical ⺾ means “grass” or “plant” and is used in kanji like: 草 (grass), 花 (flower), 茶 (tea), and 薬 (medicine). Check out this website for a long list of radicals and their meanings.

If you like digital flashcards, Wanikani is a popular kanji learning app that emphasizes radicals. It also covers 2,000 kanji, which is all you’d need to pass the N1! However, it’s organized by radicals rather than JLPT levels, so it’s best to use in conjunction with other resources. 

Kanji Explained

If you already know the kanji basics of picture associations and radicals, and you more directly want to know which kanji are necessary for your JLPT level, I recommend jlptstudy.net. (Click on your desired level, then click on “Kanji”.) When you click on a kanji, it will show you common words that kanji appears in. It also grays out kanji you previously clicked, which helps you keep track.

If you’d like a textbook rather than a website, or are aiming for the N1 (since jlptstudy.net doesn’t have N1 kanji), try the kanji book from either the “Shin Kanzen Master” or “Nihongo So-Matome” series of JLPT textbooks.


While recognizing the kanji for your level will greatly increase your Japanese comprehension, unfortunately it’s not enough. There are a variety of vocabulary words that may show up on the test that don’t use kanji, so you’ll want to study general vocabulary as well. While I personally don’t think this is the best way to learn a language, and few people find it to be an enjoyable process, it’s usually a necessity if you want to pass the JLPT. 

The book series “Essential Vocabulary for the JLPT” has you covered for every level! Not only is the selection extensive, but it includes example sentences that demonstrate common usage. This is incredibly important because only memorizing a definition may give you the wrong impression, and test-makers do account for those common misunderstandings ー and even purposely try to trick you!

If you’re ever unsure about the usage of a word, definitely search for more example sentences. You can do so with the Nihongo Master dictionary or takoboto

(When using Nihongo Master, you’ll have to search with Japanese characters. With takoboto, you can use romaji. On the takoboto website, scroll down to “phrases”, or on the app hit the “phrases” tab.)


My go-to textbook for JLPT grammar is the TRY! series. Their explanations are clear, they give several example sentences, and they give JLPT-style questions to wrap up each chapter. The only downside is they don’t cover all the potential grammar for each level, especially N3 and N2. They do cover the biggest points, though, and you’d likely be able to pass with those.

To supplement TRY!, I would turn to grammar explanation websites like JLPT Sensei and Maggie Sensei. While taking a practice test, any time I encountered a grammar point I didn’t recognize, I would look it up online. These two websites were the most consistent at giving me clear explanations. Regardless of whether the grammar point was actually in TRY! and I simply forgot, it was great to have these quick, reliable resources.


If you want to practice for the reading section of the JLPT, reading passages from practice tests is probably the most efficient, since those most directly reflect what kinds of things you’ll see on the test. We’ll get into practice test resources in an upcoming section.

For some extra reading practice that isn’t as “stiff”, you may enjoy the online magazine Watanoc. They have articles for the N5, N4, and N3 levels. A nice feature of Watanoc articles is the deliberate choice to include vocabulary and grammar particular to that level, as well as explanations that you can see by hovering over the underlined portions.

Many people who have passed N2 and N1 strongly recommend reading genuine Japanese media. This not only includes books, but also games and newspaper articles.

The site booklive has a large selection of free reading material including manga and books ー although many options are only available for a limited time. Look for “無料” on the homepage. To purchase a physical book, the Japanese bookstore chain Kinokuniya has expanded into America. If you click “Japanese books” on their website, you’ll be given a variety of genre options.

Good newspaper options include Asahi Shimbun and Yomuri Shimbun.


The most efficient way to practice for the listening section would also be practice tests, since you wouldn’t encounter their particular format outside of JLPT-style questions. The listening questions are also notorious for purposefully trying to confuse you, which is not typical of natural conversations.

Practice test textbooks will either give you a CD or a link to access the listening tracks. For more listening practice questions, you can easily find them on Youtube, such as this video. Once you find a good video for your level, you should be given other useful recommended videos.

Practice tests

After you’ve studied from other resources and given yourself a good foundation, the best way to prepare for the JLPT is to take practice tests.This is because practice tests are the most reflective of the actual test.

By doing practice tests, you’ll familiarize yourself with the format and overall “feeling” of the test. You’ll better be able to anticipate what kinds of questions you may be asked and can more easily identify weak areas or blindspots in your learning. With full-length practice tests, you can even time yourself so you feel that same “pressure” and know if timing is an issue you need to work on.

The official JLPT website offers a free short sample quiz for each of the levels. For more quizzes, jtest4you has several quizzes available for each aspect of the test. This is especially helpful if you’re weaker in one area.

For full-length practice tests, there are a number of textbooks available. Here are two good textbook series.

Tips for passing the JLPT

When taking a test of any kind, you not only have to consider your knowledge and ability on the subject, but things like your mental and emotional state. The resources will help you on the knowledge/ability side, but here I want to focus on that mental/emotional side.

Think back to other tests you’ve taken, and what issues (if any) you encountered. Were you tired? Were you hungry? Did you get distracted? Did you run out of time? If there were any major issues ー especially if it’s a repeated issue ー you’ll want to address that.

The most useful approach for taking the JLPT depends on the person, but here are tips that worked for me personally:

Take care of your body

Some people assume they should cram as much knowledge as possible before taking a test. However, if you’re doing this to the detriment of your sleep, it’s most likely going to backfire. A lack of sleep can easily kill your concentration.

Same with hunger; if your stomach is rumbling during the test, it’s going to be difficult to focus. Don’t cut out food for the sake of saving time. 

For those who aren’t morning people (like me!) and may tend to skip breakfast, I have good news; contrary to some other standardized tests, the JLPT is often offered in the afternoon. If you must take the test in the morning, though, you can at least eat something quick/something you can easily carry with you (like a bar or sandwich). 

I’d also recommend anyone to take a snack to eat during the break(s). You can also take a clear water bottle, but must remove the label.

Over-prepare your items

For the JLPT, the only thing you’ll need is a pencil and ID. However, you can feel more assured if you prepare more items.

You can take multiple pencils in case one wears down or breaks. You can also take a separate eraser, which will help if you want to change an answer. To keep track of time, you can wear an analog wristwatch (smart watches are strictly prohibited).

To take care of your physical needs, you can have a water bottle without a label during the test. You can also bring a snack for the break(s). (On that note, take advantage of the break for going to the bathroom as well.)

It’s also best to place your items in a way that’s very accessible so you don’t get

flustered. This includes your ID (and you should check which forms of ID are accepted ahead of time). 

Tackle questions strategically

It can be discouraging and time-consuming to wrestle with a particularly difficult question. Don’t worry about finishing everything in order; you can always skip a question and come back. However, you don’t want to do that too often, or it’s easy to get confused when you go back through the test.

For reading comprehension questions, try to identify keywords shared between the passage and potential answers. This is especially important when looking at email or flier-type questions. Once that habit is developed, people often find those to be the easiest questions (and they’re often towards the end of the test section).

On all types of questions, be aware that they often try to “trick you” on the test. For example, they’ll put similar-looking kanji and similar-sounding vocabulary and grammar. This attempt to “trick” especially holds for the listening section; all the potential answers will most likely appear in the dialogue, but even if they confirm a choice at one point (example: “Yes, let’s meet Wednesday.”), they may negate it later (“Oh wait, I’m busy then.”).

Do whatever gets you into the right headspace

This tip is highly subjective. Maybe you like to start the test completely calm. Maybe you like to start with a “good level” of stress.

For me, I like to study up until about 5-10 minutes before a test begins. This keeps me thinking about the kind of material I’m about to see while giving me a bit of time to rest before diving in. However, for some people this will tire them out before they even start the test! Maybe you’ll benefit more from talking with your friends, or listening to music, or anything else. 

If there’s noise during the test that distracts you, don’t be afraid to flag down a test proctor and let them know the issue. Just be honest with yourself about what will be most beneficial to you.

Something else to consider is that, for most people, the less they’re concerned about other things the better. This includes preparing all your items in advance. It could also mean finding someone else to drive you and/or arriving at the test site quite early, so you don’t have to worry about running late.  

While you have to do the work of actually studying and taking the test, you don’t have to go through this process alone. It can be incredibly beneficial to have someone to guide you, give you feedback, and keep you accountable. A tutor is trained to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each of their students, and can work with you to figure out how to give you the best possible chance of success.

To find a suitable tutor for you, check out experts on Wyzant. Many of us even have personal experience with the JLPT, and would be happy to share that with you. Best of luck!

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