JLPT 日本語能力試験

JLPT 日本語能力試験

I hereby wish to announce my retirement from studying Japanese. Or perhaps ‘semi-retirement’ would be a better way of putting it: what I want to semi-retire from is the student-y part of studying, so from now on there will be no more weekday evenings at the Adult Learning Centre, no more Saturday mornings at the Centre For International Communication, and no more poring over endless photocopies of convoluted explanations of the incredibly subtle difference between equally obscure grammatical constructions.

My excu…er, I mean reason for quitting is that on 1st July I sat – for the second and possibly final time – Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (aka nihongo noh-ryoku shiken / 日本語能力試験), and with any luck, this time I’ll get the 100 points out of 180 required for a pass (last December I managed a close-but-no-cigar 98). As you might expect, Level 1 is mind-bogglingly difficult, although passing it – particularly passing it by the skin of one’s teeth, which is what I’m aiming for – can in no way, shape or form be regarded as evidence that one is fluent in Japanese.

You can, for instance, get full marks in Level 1 of the JLPT without so much as being able to say ‘konichiwa’, as there is no spoken element to the exam. It helps a lot if you can understand what someone is talking about when they say ‘konichiwa’ to you, but if you live in Japan and have a reasonable grasp of the language, the listening section is comparatively easy (and by ‘comparatively easy’, I mean, ‘infinitesimally less fiendishly tough than the reading section’).

When I sat Level 1 in December 2011, I can honestly say that there wasn’t a single occasion as I was doing the latter when I thought to myself, ‘Aha! That’s definitely the right answer!’ For about a third of the time I thought, ‘Well, that’s probably the right answer, but I’m not 100% sure,’ for about another third of the time I thought, ‘Well, that’s not obviously the wrong answer, and I’m not even 50% sure,’ and for the rest of the time I simply crossed my fingers, picked a number between one and four and hoped for the best.

This time round, I was pleased to discover that my reading speed had improved, so that I was left with five minutes at the end of the test to hastily reassess some of the more utterly baffling questions. The trouble is that ‘reading’ and ‘understanding‘ are two entirely different things, and I’m not sure that I had improved at all in the latter.

The comprehension question that had me completely stumped last year was a page-and-a-half-long essay about (I think) the relationship between philosophy and science, and my strategy then was to look at my answer sheet, find the number I had plumped for the fewest number of times – two, if memory serves me correctly – and answer all four questions about the passage with a two. This time round there was an essay about a Japanese writer and his attitude to the concepts of fantasy and imagination, which would have been impenetrable enough if it wasn’t for the fact that these were expressed as ‘fantasy-fantasy’ and ‘imagination-imagination’, so that instead of, say, ‘So-and-so uses the concept of fantasy to deal with the indirect expression of ideas, whereas he uses the concept of imagination to deal with the direct expression of ideas,’ the essay went something like, ‘So-and-so uses the concept of fantasy-fantasy to deal with the indirect expression of ideas, whereas he uses the concept of imagination-imagination to deal with the direct expression of ideas.’ Pardon the net-ism, but WTF?!

While I wasn’t at quite so much of a loss for some of the other comprehension questions, time and again I was only able to narrow down the possible number of correct answers to two: even if you essentially ‘get’ what’s being discussed in the relevant passage of Japanese, you will often be confronted with a choice of answers along the lines of:

1) In this passage, the writer is saying that he agrees with the policy of protecting as many species of whale as possible
2) In this passage, the writer is saying that he disagrees with the policy of not protecting any species of whale at all.
3) In this passage, the writer is saying that he disagrees with the policy of protecting as many species of whale as possible.
4) In this passage, the writer is saying that he agrees with the policy of not protecting any species of whale at all.

Obviously that’s not a direct quote, but you get the idea.

The exam rooms themselves – in the romantically named Building 3B and Building 3C at Tsukuba University – were large-ish lecture theatres, and while it was possible to go in and sit down half an hour before the official start time, I have learned from experience that it is best to loiter outside until the last possible moment, as this enables you to go for as many last-minute pees as you want (I managed three) and to engage in panicked small-talk with your fellow examinees.

Even once you have entered the lecture theatre, there is still an interminable wait before you are finally allowed to pick up your retractable pencil and open the exam paper. The invigilators – who wore yellow arm bands, and as far as I could tell were students earning some extra cash – first read out the rules and regulations (no food or drink in the exam room, switch off your mobile phones, put your bag on the floor, items permitted to be placed on desk: pencils – HB or B – spare pencil leads, erasers, wristwatch), then went around the room making sure the photographs on our application forms matched our faces. They also explained the two-strikes-and-you’re-out, yellow card / red card warning system, although the JLPT is not the kind of exam that changes lives or launches careers, so I can’t imagine this is put into practice very often.

With so much to read and so little time in which to read it (two hours and five minutes, to be precise), the sheer levels of concentration required to sit Level 1 would be enough to turn the most laid-back of Japanophiles into something more reminiscent of that bloke from the David Cronenberg film Scanners whose head literally explodes in mid-press conference, and to be honest, there’s not much you can do to counteract this. My main relaxation strategy was to take off my shoes in the manner of a long-haul air passenger, and while no one in the surrounding seats complained about my smelly socks, none of them followed suit, either.

After the reading section there was a forty-minute break, during which everyone rushed outside and gulped down as much caffeine as their bodies would tolerate, and when we re-entered the lecture theatre, I was interested to note that several people – their brains no doubt completely frazzled by the onslaught of obscure vocabulary and literary grammar – had given up and gone home. Partly because thousands of others are sitting the same exam at various locations around the world – on the same day but in different time zones – you are not allowed to take the exam paper home with you, so I have spent the past few days trying to recall what the questions were and where exactly I went wrong; I will have to wait another two months before the result arrives in the post, and to find out if – like, er, David Beckham at the 2006 World Cup – my retirement has been premature.

0 thoughts on “JLPT 日本語能力試験

  1. It seems you are enjoying yourself 🙂 Fingers crossed that you get at least 101 points this time – keep us posted. T

    1. Thanks, Torsten! Obviously I’ve always been in awe of your English skills – just out of interest, have you ever taken an exam like the TOEIC or similar?

      1. No, I never did a test on this level. I had to do an English test for my Ph.D. travel scholarship but that was much less sophisticated, I would think.

  2. I wouldn’t worry too much about the comprehension mark. I read a lot, too – newspapers, books, manga etc – and that was the weakest link in my result (31 / 60). The texts they choose and the questions they ask about them are deliberately very obscure, even though with the new N1 they do, supposedly, have more relevance to real life than they used to (ie. are less academic).
    Long term I’d like to be an interpreter or a translator, but passing N1 is just a small step on that road, so for the moment, I’m still doing the English teaching thing.
    122 / 180 is a fantastic result – you should be really proud, and best of luck with your PhD application!

  3. “And if the dam breaks open many years too soon
    And if there is no room upon the hill
    And if your head explodes with dark forbodings too
    I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.”
    Good luck!

    1. Thanks, Tom (although I assume you’re aware that Dark Side Of The Moon is David Cameron’s favourite LP?!)

  4. Congrats on making it through another test. I’ve yet to attempt any of them, mostly because I spend all my study time writing instead, still living rurally is great for conversation practice. Here’s hoping you passed!

    1. Thanks, although to be honest, I think your strategy is better – real-life conversation is always going to be more useful than academic study, particularly if the people you’re talking to use Okinawa-ben!

  5. I hope you passed. Results are out on the internet. It was really hard, but I passed. I am over 50…. don’t give up, not yet!!

    1. Thanks for your words of encouragement, Susan – they must have helped, because I passed! (Only by the skin of my teeth, mind you – I scored 104 out of 180!)

      1. Good for you!! CONGRATULATIONS!! I am so pleased!!My husband kept telling me not to dwell on my marks ( I got 122/ 180), as passing is all you need to do!! I did appallingly in the comprehension ( 22/60)…don’t know how it could have gone so wrong as I read Japanese books all the time. But then again, there isn’t a whole lot you can do if as the marks a scaled. If you look at the JLPT 2011日本語能力試験結果の概要, it should give you an idea of where you came. I don’t seem to be able to attach it here, the standings are the same ,regardless of each year. I came at the 85% , quite surprised considering my not so very good grade.
        Anyway….it is all done!! I hope you have big plans for yourself? I am applying to do a PhD at a Japanese private university, those this will strengthen my application. All the best. Susan

      2. Good for you!! CONGRATULATIONS!! I am so pleased!!My husband kept telling me not to dwell on my marks ( I got 122/ 180), as passing is all you need to do!! I did appallingly in the comprehension ( 22/60)…don’t know how it could have gone so wrong as I read Japanese books all the time. But then again, there isn’t a whole lot you can do if as the marks a scaled. If you look at the JLPT 2011日本語能力試験結果の概要, it should give you an idea of where you came. I don’t seem to be able to attach it here, the standings are the same ,regardless of each year. I came at the 85% , quite surprised considering my not so very good grade.
        Anyway….it is all done!! I hope you have big plans for yourself? I am applying to do a PhD at a Japanese private university, those this will strengthen my application. All the best. Susan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *