The oldest and most recognized test of Japanese proficiency is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test offered through the Japan Foundation and the Japanese Educational system. After 2009, the N3 test was added to the original 4 levels as a way of adding another option for intermediate level students learning Japanese.

The N5 is the most basic test and designed to cover introductory level Japanese. The N4 is designed to show an understanding of basic Japanese, and the N3 demonstrates some everyday language ability. Each test has some slight variations in the material and question types asked.

Below, we will take a look at each of the levels, the content of the test, length of the test, and type of questions to expect.

Level N5 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test

N5 is the most basic level of the JLPT offered. The written part covers hiragana and katakana, the two basic phonetic writing systems used in Japanese, and some of the most basic and common kanji (characters similar to or based on Chinese characters).

The N5 JLPT is a total of 105 minutes long not including breaks, instructions, and other formalities. The vocabulary section is 25 minutes long, followed by a grammar and reading section which is a total of 50 minutes long. The listening section is 30 minutes.

A detailed and technical description of the types of questions on the test can be found here: N5 JLPT Test Question Types.The basic description is as follows:

The vocabulary section has 4 types of questions

  • Kanji reading will be tested by having test-takers choose the corresponding hiragana for a given kanji.
  • Katakana and kanji ability will be tested by asking testers to choose the correct kanji or katakana for a given word in hiragana.
  • Some vocabulary may also be tested through use of context (often with drawings illustrating a situation), or having test-takers choose sentences or phrases with a similar meaning to that in the question item.

The grammar section focuses on:

  • Selecting the correct grammar form – Test takers choose the correct particle, phrase, or grammatical form to complete the sentence.
  • Sentence composition – 4 sentence parts are taken out of a sentence, you have to think about the proper wording to complete the sentence. All of the missing sentence parts are in the list of answers. You choose the one that fits the spot marked with a star.
  • Short to medium length passages will also be used to test vocabulary by choosing the correct terms to fit the context of a part of the passage, as well as reading comprehension ability. The shorter passages will be around 80 characters in length, while the medium length passages will be around 250 characters.

The Listening Section focuses on:

  • Comprehension of key points
  • Understanding of conversational Japanese expressions
  • Task based comprehension – which requires test-takers to retrieve information and use it somehow to infer other information.
  • Quick response questions – in which test-takers have limited time to answer between test items.

The N4 Japanese Language Proficiency Test

The N4 tests Japanese learners on a larger number of basic kanji than the N5, and expects candidates to be able to handle readings and listening passages on familiar everyday topics. The listening section is spoken slowly and covers common day to day type conversations.

The N4 test is a total of 125 minutes, with 30 minutes dedicated to vocabulary, 1 hour dedicated to grammar and reading, and the final 35 minutes for listening. Most of the questions are similar to those on the N5 test with a higher difficulty level. A detailed list of all the question types can be found here: JLPT N4 Test Question Types.

The vocabulary section on N4 adds one question type to the N5 types. On N4, test-takers will be given a word, and then 4 sentences from which to choose the one sentence for which the word is used correctly. This can be difficult because it requires understanding the sentences to get the context in addition to understanding the usage of the vocabulary word in question.

The questions on the grammar and reading section, as well as the listening section are basically the same as those found on the N5 test, however done with more difficult topics and more advanced vocabulary and grammar.

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test – Level N3

The N3 test is the new test introduced in 2009 to close the gap in difficulty between the previous test levels 2 and 3. The pre-2009 level 3 is most similar to the current N4 test described above. N3 is the highest of these intermediate levels.

If you previously took the JLPT and passed level 3, continued to study and are wondering what test to take, you may have a good shot at passing the next sequential level which is N3, though students who have advanced a great deal may even want to give the N2 level a try.

The N3 level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test features a 30 minute vocabulary section (the same length as the N4), a 70 minute grammar and reading section, and an slightly longer listening section of 40 minutes. The actual test time of the N3 is a total of 140 minutes all together.

The vocabulary question types are the same as level N4, but with much more advanced vocabulary and sentences. By N3, test-takers are expected to be relatively proficient with familiar or everyday topics and words. More specific content, topics, and vocabulary should be mastered by this time, and test-takers should also be able to understand such things as newspaper headlines or summaries of information.

Slightly difficult reading passages are also introduced here with more difficult concepts being explained with alternative and easier to understand language. The N3 test also introduces longer passages into the reading and grammar section of the test.

In the listening test, longer and more “natural” conversations are introduced. The speed with which the speakers speak is also faster than levels N4 and N5. The N3 conversations are said to take place at “near-native level speed”. Listeners are expected to also pick up and infer information from conversations, such as the relationships between speakers among other things.

The listening section on the N3 test also introduces a cultural element, or gleaning a speaker’s intention based on their words. This may not always be direct, and so requires some familiarity with Japanese language communication strategies.

The JLPT N3 listening test also tests usage of verbal expressions using drawings and asking test-takers to choose the correct expression for a given situation. A person in a drawing of a situation is indicated by an arrow. Test-takers listen to a question asked and must respond as the person indicated should, using correct and appropriate Japanese conversation.

Conclusion and Further Investigations

The JLPT provides a sample question for each type of question found on each level of the JLPT. This can be useful for people who are just trying to choose a level to start studying for, or people who want to know what the questions on the test actually look at. JLPT Sample Questions by Level.

The tests can be a great way to self-check your Japanese language ability, or also to network with other people learning Japanese in your area. Knowing the question types and choosing the appropriate test level can ensure that taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test can be both enjoyable and productive for you. Now that the exam is offered twice a year, the JLPT can be a regular part of any Japanese curriculum.

The next article will look at the N1 and N2 JLPT exams for people learning Japanese at higher levels.