The JLPT goes otaku

I finally got around to taking Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (日本語能力試験) last weekend. Roy, Adamu and Curzon all took it while they were in diapers, but I never saw much need to do so myself. It’s hardly a good benchmark of ability; one can pass Level 1 with poor Japanese skills, or fail it with good Japanese skills, depending solely on how one’s skills match the material covered on the test. Level 1 essentially tests for the following:

  1. Basic conversational and reading comprehension ability

  2. Correct pronunciation of words written in kanji

  3. Ability to distinguish between similar kanji

  4. Ability to distinguish between grammatical forms that nobody uses

  5. Ability to understand science fiction anime

Point 5 is apparently a new addition to the December 2009 examination, and showed up in the last question on the listening section, helpfully uploaded to YouTube so I can prove to everyone that it is real. (Hat tip to these guys, and to Roy for tipping me off through Facebook.)

Another question on the listening test was based on a role-playing video game similar to Final Fantasy; the recording played an explanation of the various steps required to beat the game (with an accompanying 8-bit-style map in the test booklet), and the test taker was asked to give the correct order of places to visit. It’s nice to know that Level 1 has some practical uses.

  1. So the wikipedia-editing otaku boureaucrats have hijacked the monbusho?
    This country really is going to hell.

  2. “One can pass Level 1 with poor Japanese skills, or fail it with good Japanese skills, depending solely on how one’s skills match the material covered on the test.”

    Very true. I took Level 1 in December 1999 and failed by a mile; I took it again in December 2000 and passed. I was in the US througout this time and, despite using Japanese in my job, my Japanese had not noticably improved. The difference? I had learned how to take the test. Ultimately, that’s what they test in Japan.

  3. You need to study specifically for the the test to pass it, that’s true. But to say that you need “basic reading comprehension” it’s a bit exaggerated, don’t you think? :)

    I don’t know anyone that passed the test and speaks poor japanese, do you? But several of my friends passed it and they speak very good japanese.

  4. “one can pass Level 1 with poor Japanese skills, or fail it with good Japanese skills, depending solely on how one’s skills match the material covered on the test.”

    They need to introduce a level 特A that only about 5 people can pass.

  5. I laughed so hard when listening to that. Thanks for the post.

    wtg on the JLPT 1. I’ve passed the #2 but haven’t had time to study or try again since. Oh what joy I have to look forward to…

  6. “They need to introduce a level 特A that only about 5 people can pass.”

    So how would this question work? Maybe they don’t give you the voice prompt and expect you to recall everything in Evangelion from memory.

    ‘In episode 7 what did Shinji do?
    A) Shinji piloted the EVA
    B) Shinji complained a lot
    C) Shinji got beat up on
    D) All of the above’

  7. It’s worth mentioning that for the past several years, Chinese (or at least Chinese-speaking) test-takers have uploaded several sections of the test to the internet around 8-12 hours before the exam is given in the US. Being an honorable man, I didn’t peek before taking mine, but you can bet that as soon as I got home I rechecked all my answers to see whether I should expect to pass (I’m borderline).

    And I think these questions are probably the logical result of the Japan Foundation, creating the test a year ago, finally getting whatever memo was the result of the spate of “Cool Japan” articles published around ‘06.

  8. To M-Bone’s question:

    The “Jitsuyo Nihongo Kentei” or “J-Test” has a six-tier level system which I prefer to the four-tier JLPT system—it essentially splits the two highest JLPT levels into sub-levels. The highest level, “A,” is basically close to native level; “B” is roughly equivalent to 1-kyu, while “C” and “D” are like low and high 2-kyu.

    JLPT is adding a new level between 2 and 3 next year, which, in my opinion, is totally irrelevant. Who cares about levels 3 and 4?

  9. @Joe Jones: Novice students of Japanese care. Currently there is a big gap in difficulty between 3-kyū and 2-kyū.

    I know it’s cool for people (especially “tests are meaningless” types and “I already passed 1-kyū a million years ago” types) to pooh-pooh the JLPT. Of course it is not the end-all and be-all of Japanese proficiency. But it is one (arguably the most well known) measure of proficiency, and as such it serves a useful purpose.

  10. I don’t know, I was pretty skeptical about level 3 and 4 myself all along. I was studying Japanese for several years before I could even imagine passing level 2, but it was still obvious that the gap between levels was so large that 3 and 4 are effectively worthless as certification, so I figured that being able to read some particular newspaper article or manga felt like more worthwhile benchmark. But I can understand people wanting a more official goal to work for, and looking at the HUGE gap between level 2 and 3 that was an essential hole that needed to be filled.

    It’s worth remembering though that JLPT level 1 serves a very important purpose as the baseline Japanese certification required for entrance to a Japanese university at the undergraduate level. (Graduate school doesn’t require the test- they have basically unlimited discretion.) A higher level of certification might be useful as well, but I wonder why they don’t just scrap the whole dumb level system and have one test with a variable score, like the TOEFL. Or for that matter, basically every other standardized test in the world.

    And BTW, I actually never did get around to passing level 1. I took it a while ago, but due to a massive change in my plans for the year I was completely unable to dedicate any of my expected study time for it, so I took it cold with no preparation and failed by a few points. Lack of sleep also hurt me pretty bad on the listening portion, since I was just too sleepy to focus. I really need to sign up for it next time. I completely forgot this year until Joe mentioned studying for it a couple of weeks ago.

  11. Come to think of it, that Eva question is terrible because people familiar with the show could easily come up with the answer based on knowledge of how the “robots” work even if their Japanese is crap.

    Thanks for the info Joe. I had heard of the alternate test but was not aware of the details.

    Aaron – when we knock the test, we don’t mean to knock the usefulness of tests. I passed level 3 after 3 months of Japanese. I don’t say that to brag – it really isn’t a significant achievement – but rather to highlight the fact that the if they are going to continue with the tests, the current level 3 should become the new lowest level and they should add something quite above the current Lv 1 so that advanced users are motivated to take it. As it is, I don’t have Lv 1, but see no reason to take it as it would just mean studying how to beat the test.

    The way that Japanese is tested at grad schools in NA is interesting. They make you translate a random newspaper article with no dictionary. After that, you prove yourself with your work.

  12. An example of how messed up the current system is – I was recently evaluating someone who included a Lv 2 certificate. All it told me was that the person’s Japanese wasn’t up to research level so it actually worked against them. Meanwhile, there were others with no JLPT level and I guessed that they could hack it from their CV.

  13. Your last comment rings true, M-Bone. I put level 2 on my resume at one point, but a few recruiters (as well as a senior lawyer at a law firm I was applying to) all told me to take it off and simply say I was generally proficient. Holding out a level 2 qualification implies that your language ability is still very basic; level 1 at least shows that you can function independently to some degree in a variety of working contexts.

    Another alternative is the Business Japanese Test, which has a more nuanced scale (here) and seems to focus on practical ability to extract and use information from Japanese text and conversation, rather than nitpicky points like correct kanji pronunciation. On the other hand, it is administered by the sketchy Kanji Kentei people.

  14. I’ve passed both 1-kyū and the BJT J1+, and I don’t feel that the BJT was a better test of information extracting skills. It had much more of a focus on knowing etiquette, polite speech, and business culture than the JLPT. But perhaps the JLPT really has changed since I took it (2001; I took the BJT in 2008).

    And regarding correct kanji pronunciation: Do you not think that’s important? Kanji proficiency is an important part of Japanese proficiency, and is something that I would expect from someone who claims to “know” Japanese.

  15. I have academic experience and Joe has real world experience. For anyone reading these posts – think seriously about leaving Lv2 off your resume. If you think that you are advanced, write it. But it is usually better to let your experience talk for you.

    If I ever have to test someone for a job in my area, I’d give them a random Shinsho and tell them to have a 1500 word summary for me within 4 hours. For an ethnographer, I’d get them to transcribe an episode of Mushishi.

  16. If someone puts JLPT1 on his resume when applying for a translation job at my company, we generally ignore it. (I took the test in 1994? 5? and listed my pass when I applied for a job here in 1996, and nobody interviewing me even knew what it was, FWIW.) It isn’t a helpful benchmark for judging a person’s language ability when that ability is going to be central to the position he’s applying for.

    If someone puts JLPT2 on his resume, he won’t get an interview, probably. So I agree with all the other folks up above in this regard.

    I do think the tests are great because they give people a clearly structured staircase up which to climb as they study the language, though. They just don’t reliably mark you as “sorta good” or “really proficient” or “tall enough to ride this attraction” or whatever.

  17. For undergraduate you need to take the foreign student exam 留学試験, the JLPT is worth nothing.
    I did find the ryuugaku shiken a better exam, not as much weird keigos or formal grammar.

    So I guess the JLPT really is a useless sham. sigh. I did study hard for my 1kyuu. Felt good anyway.

  18. Spandrell, correct you are. Although I get partial credit, since before the 留学試験 was created, the JLPT WAS used for this purpose. But really I should have known better.

    The question is, should I even bother taking it next year, or should I just forget the test and wait until March 2011 when I can say “wrote a MA thesis in Japanese”?

  19. I say forget it and write the title of your thesis in Japanese with English in brackets on your CV. That will also draw attention to the fact that you have a scholarship – money tends to attract money.

  20. “If I ever have to test someone for a job in my area, I’d give them a random Shinsho and tell them to have a 1500 word summary for me within 4 hours. For an ethnographer, I’d get them to transcribe an episode of Mushishi.”

    Hmm. I don’t think I could actually read all of a shinsho in 4 hours, but I suppose I could easily skim enough of it to produce a 1500 word summary. Not sure about Mushishi as I haven’t seen it. Is the language tough? And in fact, is it worth watching as entertainment?

  21. Clearly there needs to be -dan ranks in the JLPT, if only so someone can take it too far and claim they have a “black belt” in Japanese.

  22. The thing about the JLPT is, as useless as it is in practice, many Japanese companies look at it and are impressed. During an interview with a previous, Nikkei 225 employer, my JLPT 1 qualification on my resume was brought up in an interview, and they made the appropriate noises of appreciation. Of course, most foreign companies don’t give a toss, nor do smaller companies with more flexible interview processes.

    I liken it to one saying that one has gone to [name-brand Japanese university]—sure, you may have spent four years drinking yourself stupid and doing as little work as possible, but to many employers the name is all that matters.

    Fortunately, though, outside of Japan actual ability counts more than anything else. In Japan, though, having the qualification seems to count for at least as much—and sometimes more. A sad state of affairs, but that’s reality.

  23. “Fortunately, though, outside of Japan actual ability counts more than anything else.”

    I don’t know. JLPT 1 did help me get employed, and it was a foreign firm. I’ve also been told, at the next company I worked for, that the university I went to got me in (i.e. I was worthless at the interview). Neither instance had much Japanese flavor to it.

  24. “I don’t think I could actually read all of a shinsho in 4 hours, but I suppose I could easily skim enough of it to produce a 1500 word summary.”

    That’s the idea.

    Mushishi isn’t so hard as “strange”. There are made up words that need to be figured out through context as well as very simple emotional content – one of the only things that popped into my head as a good way to test someone who would be doing ethnographic work (although obviously if they were working with day laborers or something it would be different).

    I thought that Mushishi was great. No “fighting” and little action. Truly original spiritual detective work in beautiful settings. If you start, make sure that you at least watch up to the writing/black leg episode.

  25. These tests are not easy.

    You pass the 1-kyuu, you can read a newspaper. You can communicate freely by e-mail. And, unless you completely flunked the listening portion yet still managed to top 70% total (read: unlikely), it means you can probably carry on a conversation as well.

    Does it mean you can speak like a Japanese person? Or course not. Neither does knowing your obscure “mushishi” terms backwards and forwards. The fact is, there is no fool-proof method of testing fluency.

    The 1-kyuu is not the end-all be-all. But it means something. Not everyone can reach the level of deciphering “random shinsho”. If you’re the Maikeru Joudan of Japanese study and can do so with ease, well, good for you, buddy.

    As for the rest of us, we’re just going to have to strive for being merely good. And passing 1-kyuu means you’re good. Anyone trying to say otherwise has either never taken the test, has immersed themselves in Japanese study for the better part of two decades (and is therefore in the vast minority), or is simply trying to show off. Or, perhaps all of the above?

    For those of us grinding away to accomplish something meaningful in our studies, some of the elitist attitudes present on this thread are not very helpful….

  26. “Not everyone can reach the level of deciphering “random shinsho”. ”

    You should note that we are talking about these levels/tests from the POV of hiring. Professionals really should be put to a different type of area specific test. You don’t have to think that we are nice, but the bits above about what looks good on a CV and what doesn’t is free advice from people who hire people and it couldn’t hurt to keep it in mind.