Posted in Japanese Langauge

The Dreaded JLPT: A Necessary Evil

It’s the plight of many an English teacher here in Japan. We all want to do something else, but going home to our countries of origin doesn’t appeal to certain folks. Take for example, I dunno, me. I could theoretically go back to the good ol’ U.S.A…but I don’t wanna and you can’t make me.

However, I don’t particularly desire to keep teaching. Don’t get me wrong, my job is actually pretty great. I’ve got a sweet direct hire position that has bonuses, vacation days, a private healthcare package (yay, dental), but for all the perks I’m just really burnt out on this profession.

In order to get out of teaching English, generally most jobs require Japanese fluency to some degree. Most friends who knew better than me back in the JET Program hit the ground running on studying and taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), the number one test in Japan that employers trust.

The beginner levels are N5 and N4, which means you got the kanji basics down so good for you, but you’re not really employable yet. N3 means you’re probably conversational level, you’ve got a good sense on grammar and basic reading skills, but once again still not employable.

Basically, if you’re not Business Level (N2) or near Native Fluent (N1) then odds are no one is going to hire you outside of the English teacher or education sector. It sucks, but that’s just how it is here. For many people, N2 and N1 require years of studying and effort, which is something I sort of have…kind of not really though.

I attempted N4 about five years ago and didn’t pass by all of a few damn points. I didn’t let that stop me and continued studying, going to Japanese classes at my city hall, and just in general picking up conversation Japanese through my friends. Years passed, and I moved from here to there, switched jobs twice, and studying fell by the wayside.

Last December, I decided it was high time I got around to hitting the books again. I needed to memorize that kanji, get that grammar down pat, and just go take the N2 test to see if I could pass it at the level I currently am.

I failed so hard you guys, like face planting into asphalt hard. It hurt, it wasn’t pretty, and a few tears were shed.

Back when I was on JET, I figured that I’d always have time. There was always tomorrow, or the next week, or this vacation time, sure I can totally spend spring break catching up, and so on and so forth. I did study, but always with the attitude that I could get better later.

That attitude has come back to bite me right in the bum! Because the clock is ticking. I just got word today that my position is going to be officially declared part time next year. I mean, awesome incentive to study, right? Yet, there is more than a bit of internal screaming going on as I’m studying recently.


The JLPT is December 3rd this year, which gives me only a few months to get my shit together and study hard. In university it was somehow easier, I guess because my whole life was studying and learning. These days between work and everything else, forcing myself to sit the hell down for a few hours to go over kanji is tough, man, who has the energy for studying on top of working from 9-5 (or in my case today, 8:20 a.m. -7:30 p.m. which is gonna be the norm for a week or so).

I can already hear the people who’ve taken it and passed mumbling to themselves, “Psh! It’s not that difficult, you whiny peasant, just get the study guides and memorize them. It’s just that simple!”

And to them I say, “WHAT DO YOU THINK I’VE BEEN DOING?!” I’ve bought all the N2 prep books I could get my hands on and I’ll pick them up, cram for a good two weeks, but then stuff happens. You know the stuff, family vacations, sickness, event planning, work things, and on and on. I’ll go back to the books only to discover that I’ve forgotten most of those previous lessons and we’re back to square one.

Yeah, yeah, you don’t wanna hear my excuses. Would you be interested to hear how this test is only really useful in Japan? Oh good, because it is. The JLPT has Vocabulary/Kanji, Reading, and Listening as sections for the exam. What’s missing? Speaking, as in there is no interview process for this test. That’s also why the Imaginary JLPT Elitist™ from earlier could be able to read kanji well but can’t speak worth a darn, or could have just taken a JLPT intensive course at a language school to cram all that knowledge with no idea of how to apply it in a real life scenario.

In other words, the JLPT doesn’t really evaluate fluency, it just gets a general idea of what you could theoretically be able to do based on reading level. While it’s great for Japan employers and such, most universities outside of Japan will force you to write an essay in Japanese, and companies outside of Japan will have you do an interview in Japanese for certain positions.

In Japan, you’ll get an interview too, but you’ll never reach that stage without a JLPT certification. Hell, you won’t even have your application looked at if you’re lacking in that sweet N2 or N1 PASSED paper. All the networking in the world can’t stand up to the might that is the JLPT foothold on the employment line.

So, basically, if I want to have a job by this time next year, I’ve got to get at least N2.

For those of you wondering, “Well if you’re not going to teach, what’s the plan then? Translator, interpreter, exotic dancer?” The answer is: something in the tourism sector, and yes it’s that vague on purpose. I would love to work for a tourism agency or work as a part time travel writer with another part time job as something else.

Full honesty here, I would just love to get the change to write for a living, but that’s a high gamble dream, so I’m sticking with more down to earth things. Besides I can write whatever I want in my freetime, and I will, always and forever, amen.

Regardless of what I want to do, the fact is that hours upon hours of my life in the foreseeable future will be devoted to studying my butt off. It won’t be an easy road, but it’s a matter of survival, ya’ll. I got to get to it!


2 thoughts on “The Dreaded JLPT: A Necessary Evil

  1. Ok, here goes! I had never heard of the JLPT until I watched your video of you attempting to find a good place to study around town. It struck me as a very interesting test. I get the concept; that it ensures that foreign workers have a grasp on the language (if not spoken), but after reading your post, I see it in a different light that makes even more sense. Given the closed nature of Japan in the past, and the xenophobic or potentially racist views that can come from isolation, the test could been seen as an block to imigration and a protectionist move to ensure jobs remain skewed to a Japanese workforce. Very clever and not a bad idea, given the recession they have been in these past decades. Still, sucks if you are in the gears of the “machine”.

    I have a rather unhealthy fascination with Japan, ever since I watched Shogun as a little kid, and my only real bucket list is to go on a epic trip and get lost for a month traveling around seeing everything I can. But you know, it helps to know the language. I’ve tried time and time again to do it, but I had school, then college, then work and family. I feel your frustration. There is always something better to do, or more pressing. Then you start over. Now my kid is in kindergarten and he’s learning Japanese!? So, I regroup and start a new dream to take him with me. Maybe in 13-15 years?

    Who knows, but long comment short, your JLPT video got me excited to learn again and take a 5 test. Maybe work up to 3? I guess I like having a goal.

    I wish you the best of luck! The adventures and struggles of you and your friends in the videos is an inspiration to me. You can do it. (Queue Rocky Theme)


    1. Wow cool! Yeah if you want to take the JLPT or start studying for it, go ahead and do it. You can actually take the test in America at certain universities in June and December, but you’ll need to go to the JLPT website for more information. But if you just want to travel around for a month, you could just learn from YouTube videos and Duolingo or other apps. Either way, just do your best and work towards your goal. Tell your son to gambarre!


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