When I started learning Japanese, I never thought I would be aiming for N1, the highest and most difficult level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). But as I continued studying, I’ve grown to love the language even more until I developed a desire to reach N1.
It hasn’t been a year since I passed N2 (equivalent), but I wanted to challenge myself and see how far I could make it in my N1-level studies before I leave for Japan this year.
Surely, this was my first attempt at the N1-level exam, so the chances of passing it are extremely low. Perhaps even remote. Regardless, I decided to push myself and study as much as I can before the July 2022 test.
The result of all that hard work is a passing score for the JLPT N1 in just ONE attempt.
In this article, I’ll share the details of my preparation that helped me pull that off.
Challenges in Learning Advanced Japanese
As someone who picked up Japanese to kill time with the mere goal of learning basic travel phrases, there was little to no incentive for me in learning the language. It had nothing to do with my daily life in general.
Obviously, I did not have an environment where I could grow and flourish in the Japanese language. The only motivation that fueled me to continue studying was the pure enjoyment that I got from it.
The lack of exposure to Japanese was the greatest obstacle that I encountered in getting to N1. But that wasn’t enough to hinder me from targeting that level.
I feel that having an environment where you can use Japanese is an awesome advantage that is often overlooked by Filipino bilinguals who have Japanese jobs. That frequent exposure would only need to be accompanied by regular and intensive study.
Bridging the Gap Between N2 and N1
One of the challenges in progressing through the five levels of the JLPT is that the increase in difficulty is exponential.
To illustrate: For N2, the examinee should have mastered around 1,000 kanji and 6,000 words. For N1, that number nearly doubled to 2,000 kanji and 10,000 words.
That’s a HUGE step up from the previous level. Imagine your efforts getting to N2 ever since you started your Japanese studies with a zero background. That’s about how much it will take to reach N1 from N2. It’s no wonder that N1 is an incredibly tough level to beat.
When I talk to Filipino N1 passers (or at least N2-level learners aspiring to reach N1), they often mention how many attempts they had to take before actually passing N1. The number significantly varies among them, so what I can only conclude so far is that they needed at least five attempts to succeed.
Therefore, one cannot expect to pass the test with luck alone. I think that having this awareness is critical to building the proper mindset in preparing for the test.
Personal Study Plan and Learning Materials
Until February 2022, I was busy with graduate school applications and with my full-time job. My schedule loosened up when I only had four months left to prepare. Frankly, I didn’t have a lot of time to study for N1, but I tried to make the best out of what little I had.
Fortunately, I started delving into N1 material even before I passed N2 (Level 2) in October 2021. At least that gave me a jumpstart into studying.
In this section, I will describe each of the resources that I utilized in my JLPT review:
I was enrolled at Nihongo Center Foundation (NCF) since I started studying Japanese as a total beginner. There, I took advanced special classes with a native Japanese instructor once a week.
In class, I mostly did reading practice. My mentor would choose online articles with high-level Japanese for me to read. These were mostly news on current Japanese affairs and business articles related to my profession, with topics such as accounting, finance, and economics.
I found that reading a lot of native material is the most effective way in building vocabulary. By encountering them in real life, it became easier for me to remember them instead of simply memorizing long lists of vocabulary words.
I’ll discuss my experience taking these classes in a separate post, but for now, all you just need to know is that these classes were supplementary. Learning new Japanese language concepts was entirely my own responsibility.
Until N2, I was reading and practicing with as many JLPT review books as I could. With N1 prep, I didn’t have that kind of luxury anymore; I just selected a few books given the short period of time that I had. As such, I cannot tell whether these are the best books that I can recommend for N1 review.
Try: Nihongo Nouryoku Shiken
I’ve been reading Try! since my very first JLPT at the N5 level. I often regard it as the perfect book to start reviewing for the JLPT. The reason is simple: It’s the easiest to follow and it feels as if you’re learning with training wheels.
I started reading Try! N1 a few months before I took the N2 exam. I thought it was great introductory material to the N1 level.
Shin Kanzen Master: Bunpou
This is one of my favorite materials in JLPT review. Yes, it looks intimidating and boring, but you’ll get a comprehensive and well-organized resource material.
If you are doing self-study, you might find it difficult to understand some concepts. This happened to me several times as I went through this book.
To address that, I supplemented this with the videos from Nihongo no Mori (which I’ll explain in a later section of this article), but you can do the same with any N1 grammar lesson you can find on YouTube.
Shin Kanzen Master: Dokkai
Aside from native Japanese material, I practiced with JLPT-type reading passages by using Shin Kanzen Master.
This book contains a LOT of reading practice problems. Nearly 70 if I’m not mistaken. Then you’ll get another set of reading passages to work on as a sectional mock exam. It also contains test-taking tips and strategies related to the reading section of the JLPT.
Hajimete no Nihongo Nouryoku Shiken: Tango
This compact book is so convenient to carry with me anywhere so that I can sneak in some JLPT review even when I am out of the house.
All vocabulary words are organized by theme and are accompanied by a sample sentence. Plus, you’ll get access to online quizzes for practice, so don’t forget to make use of this feature if you own the book.
Nihongo Power Drill: Moji / Goi
When I took a mock exam as a diagnostic tool, I knew that the Language Knowledge section needed the most work, specifically on vocabulary and kanji.
To practice that section as much as I could, I bought this book. Instead of the standard number of items per question type as you would find in a full-length exam, this book allows you to practice a few of each type in a set. In my case, I did one set per day.
Online Learning Platform: Video Lessons
Nihongo no Mori
Nihongo no Mori has been around on YouTube for several years already, but it was only in late 2020 that it launched a full-fledged platform for JLPT video lessons, beginning with N1, its main offering. Later, they rolled out N2 and N3 content as well.
To me, the videos for kanji and grammar were the most useful. You will be taught tricks on recognizing kanji as well as their meaning and most common word usage. You will also learn the simple or conversational counterparts of N1 grammar, which are often too formal and archaic.
Nihongo no Mori also hosts online live classes and offers soft copies of its books for download. You can get all these on-demand features by subscription which you can cancel at any time.
Mobile Phone Applications
I’ve been using this Android app ever since I was studying for N4. I mainly use this for memorizing kanji stroke orders, on– and kun– readings, and meanings through its various practice quizzes.
I maximize the use of colored stars to assign categories to kanji. The app says that red stars are for known kanji, orange for familiar kanji, and yellow for seen kanji.
I slightly tweaked the use of this function for my own preference: orange stars are for kanji that are included in my current practice set, while yellow stars are for kanji that I’ve already studied but haven’t practiced yet.
Download Kanji Study from Google Play
Takoboto is an offline Japanese to English dictionary that is easy to use and convenient. I mainly use this to look up unfamiliar words after a reading practice session.
One of the nifty features of this app is that you can create your own vocabulary lists. It is also linked to the Kanji Study app if you already have it installed on your phone, making learning new vocabulary and kanji at the same time seamless.
Download Takoboto from Google Play
There are a lot of flashcard apps, including the highly popular Anki for language learning. In my case, I’ve been using Quizlet because I prefer its sleek and modern-looking interface. Plus, it is so easy to create and organize new sets.
You can also easily import lists of words by copying and pasting from Word and Excel files. Like Anki, you can also download flashcard sets created by other users.
Download Quizlet from Google Play
I’ve discussed extensively the importance of mock exams, so it only makes sense to include them as part of my own test preparation.
I didn’t have a lot of time as I previously mentioned, so I only did two mock exams, the first of which I used as a diagnostic tool in mid-2021. The results of that mock exam were disastrous, but it helped me identify that Language Knowledge was my weakest point.
Koushiki Mondaishuu Vol. 2
I forgot which mock exam I took as a diagnostic, but I had a feeling it was the first official mock exam. So for my practice, I did the second volume instead when I had one month left before the actual exam.
If you only have time for just one or two practice exams, then get the official ones from the JLPT website. It’s free to download, so you don’t have to buy the paperback version.
Insights from the Actual Exam
When I did my second mock exam in early June, I got a raw score that was around 65%. If you remember my explanation on JLPT scoring, you’ll roughly need a 70% raw score to pass N1.
With that, I predicted my score to be 30-30-40 for Language Knowledge, Reading, and Listening. That’s an overall score of 100, which is exactly the passing score for N1. My actual overall and sectional scores were remarkably close to my prediction.
Given the time constraint that I had in test preparation, I couldn’t fully absorb the scope and content of N1 level. That also means that I barely had time to polish my test performance by answering as many practice drills and mock exams as possible and improving my pacing on the test.
In a previous post, I wrote about my test-taking experience where I had the opportunity to talk with fellow N1 examinees. It is easy to feel intimidated by their years of Japanese experience and their number of attempts at JLPT N1, but I reminded myself to have faith in the intensive review I did in the past months.
I didn’t feel 100% confident, that’s for sure. I was also nervous because I knew how difficult N1 is. But it is important not to be influenced by other people’s negative experiences. Rather, you should expect your test results to be commensurate with the level of your JLPT preparation.
You should expect your test results to be commensurate with the level of your JLPT preparation.
What Lies Beyond N1 Level
So, what’s next?
Is JLPT N1 the end or the ultimate goal?
Obviously not! I have so much work to do on improving my Japanese. I won’t be satisfied until I am comfortable using Japanese in conversational and business settings. That is something I plan to work on during my stay in Japan in the next few years.
In addition, I only got a low passing score this July 2022 JLPT. I’d like to attempt N1 several more times until I earn a score that I can be truly proud of.
I have a long road ahead of me, and I’d love to share more of my study adventures in this blog. See you in my next post!