I passed the JLPT N1!

This is a long post about me taking and passing the JLPT N1 for the first time. I will talk about:

  • my scores, section by section;
  • what I did during my six-month preparation for N1, what was useful and what was useless;
  • why I am going to sit the test once more in December and how I am going to study for it.

But first, some context:

The JLPT and me

I took and passed the JLPT N2 twice in 2017. The following year, I took a break from the JLPT, and I am back now in 2019 for a new JLPT challenge. My idea was to sit the JLPT N1 in December 2019, but I also took the test in July as a warm-up exercise… and I passed!

It is interesting to note that the scores I had for N1 this time are very similar to my results of July 2017, when I took N2 for the first time:

2017 = JLPT N22019 = JLPT N1
Test 1
Language Knowledge: 34/60
Reading: 60/60
Listening: 38/60
Language Knowledge: 36/60
Reading: 48/60
Listening: 37/60
Test 2
Language Knowledge: 48/60
Reading: 59/60
Listening: 49/60

Scores, section by section

Language Knowledge: 36/60

I consider 36/60 to be a very decent score, but it also means that almost half of my answers were wrong… It seems that some people have a “detailed” score for vocabulary and grammar (noted A or B), but I can’t seem to find it on the Korean site for the JLPT. This means that I don’t know if I lost the points in the vocabulary or in the grammar section.

The vocabulary questions were as expected: a lot of unknown vocabulary and a lot of words that I didn’t know well enough to answer the questions correctly.

As for the grammar section, it baffled me. It was very different from what I prepared for. There were very few questions about typical N1 grammar points (the ones I had learned in So-matome). I answered the questions not using my knowledge of N1 grammar, but using my intuition. I mean, I could not relate the questions to a particular grammar point that I had learned, so I could only answer what I felt was right. I would really love to have my exact score for the grammar section, just to know if my general knowledge of Japanese syntax is enough, or if I need to study more.

Reading: 48/60

I think that my score at reading is very interesting, it shows how difficult the reading section for N1 is, and that it is much more challenging than the reading for N2.

In 2017, I had a perfect score at reading, but not this time. This is strange because I can assure you that my reading level has improved a lot since 2017. I am reading many more novels now than two years ago, I am reading faster, I struggle less, and I read more difficult things. I also spent a lot of time in 2018 reading the news in Japanese. What I mean is that I would have expected my reading level to have largely reached the N1 requirements. Of course it did because I still got a good score. But I scored less than for N2, so there must be a considerable gap between the N2 reading and the N1 reading level.

Listening: 37/60

Same as in 2017, my listening score comes as a surprise. I mean, it is much better than I thought it would be. You could almost say that my listening practice for the JLPT amounted to zero, and I felt very distressed during the test. Given all that, I am very happy to have scored 37!

Listening is very hard for me, and when I see people getting 60/60 at listening, I’m so very impressed!!! 

Looking back on my JLPT study

I have been thinking about what had been the most useful (or what has been useless) during my preparation (from January to June) for the JLPT.


I have studied with the So-matome textbook for kanji, and to be honest, this has been completely useless. I stopped after a while and never completed the textbook.

I am not saying that you should skip studying the kanji altogether, but I personally didn’t see what studying with a kanji textbook brought me what studying with a vocabulary textbook didn’t. The JLPT N1 does not really test you on kanji but on vocabulary, words and how to use them. When I studied the kanji, either I already knew the words they were in and felt that I was losing my time, or they appeared in words that I didn’t know, and I had to study these words anyway as part of my vocabulary session.

I wish I hadn’t spent so much time with this kanji textbook and learn new words instead.


I studied with the 日本語単語スピードマスター. It is a very good resource, but I was not using it well enough. I simply learned the vocabulary I didn’t know, but I didn’t work enough on each word.

The problem is that I know a lot of words just so so. I kind of know what they mean, and they certainly would not bother me if I encounter them in a novel. But my knowledge of the words is not good enough for the JLPT. Ideally, I should have worked on two things:

  1. Learn vocabulary
  2. Solidify my knowledge of the words that I already know

I only worked on the first point. As a result, I sometimes found myself looking at four words that I knew, but I could not decide which one was correct for the given sentence. It is so frustrating to know that I would understand any sentence containing these words if it were in a novel, but to not be able to answer the JLPT questions.

The term of “language knowledge” describes exactly what the JLPT is. The JLPT test your knowledge of the language, more than your capacity of using the language, at least when vocabulary is concerned.

My advice: Just learning new words is not enough. It is important to know the words well. When you learn a new word, you should really learn it in context (for example, learning short sentences or phrases instead of words) so that you know exactly in which kind of context it is used.

Even if you learn by heart an entire vocabulary textbook such as 日本語単語スピードマスター, you are still likely to encounter unknown words during the test. It seems impossible to know all the words the JLPT could test you with. While it is important to learn new words regularly, don’t forget that you should also master the words you already know. If you feel that you are running out of time with your preparation, work on the words you think you know, make sure that you know in which contexts they can be used and what is the difference between them and synonyms or words that share one same kanji. It will certainly be more useful than hurriedly learning some more new words a few days before the test.

To me, learning vocabulary for the JLPT is quite a different mission than learning vocabulary to read novels. To be able to read novels without struggling, I always go for quantity over quality. The more words I know, the better. I only need to know the general meaning of a word, but I don’t need to know in which context it can or cannot be used. Similarly, I don’t even need to know how to pronounce it because recognising the kanji is enough.

On the contrary, when you study for the JLPT, you should opt for quality over quantity, because even if you know a word (you can associate it with one or two English equivalents) but don’t know how it is used, you will have a hard time answering the JLPT questions.


I have entirely studied the So-matome textbook for grammar and I have reviewed the grammar regularly during all my preparation for N1. Having been through the whole textbook has been more than useful for my Japanese level. I keep seeing N1 grammar in novels I read, and I am sure that I made a lot of progress thanks to it.

However, I would not say that it had been super useful as far as the JLPT is concerned. To me, the So-matome does not correspond to the JLPT questions, it looks like there is a gap between the actual test and the textbooks, as if the tests had changed over the years and the textbooks not. I am not saying that the JLPT is harder than what the So-matome teaches you, but it is different. Similarly, don’t expect the JLPT to be a copy of the drills you find in the 日本語パワードリルN1文. (But keep in mind that I have taken the JLPT N1 only once.)

This being said, I still think that it is necessary to study a book like So-matome because some of the grammar points contained in it did show up in the JLPT, and you cannot know which ones. But most of the questions had nothing to do with what I had learned in So-matome.

To be honest, I don’t know how I can study the grammar. I think it would be useless to buy another textbook similar to So-matome. I don’t feel that I need to learn even more “N1 grammar points”, so if a textbook only lists grammatical patterns, it might not be what I need. I wish I could find a grammar textbook that would fit the contents of the JLPT…

I am sorry that I don’t have particular advice for the grammar because I don’t know myself how I should study…


I didn’t really study for the reading section, I just kept on reading novels in Japanese on a daily basis.

This method has worked because I didn’t struggle too much to understand the texts of the JLPT. Some were hard, but I could understand them after reading them twice. I remember that one in particular was very challenging, and I had to give up the idea of understanding it perfectly. Maybe I lost all my points on this particular text?

So reading a lot of native material instead of actively studying for the reading section of the JLPT allowed me to understand most of the texts of the JLPT. But there are two problems:

  1. Some texts (or even all of them) are much more difficult to understand than mystery novels
  2. Even if you understand the texts, it is difficult to answer the questions because it often seems that more than one answer could be the right one.

My advice: It depends on your level, but I think you should both study for the reading section (for example, with the Shin Kanzen textbook) and read a lot in Japanese, even easier things.

The questions of the JLPT are so tricky and difficult that having a good reading level is not enough to answer them correctly. You have to practice answering these kinds of question. I think that this is where reading and listening differ. In the listening section, if you understand what you hear, you will probably be able to answer correctly. But in the reading section, even if you understand what you read (maybe you could not translate the text, but you could explain what it is about), you might be puzzled by the questions. So you need to practice reading for the JLPT, not just reading for pleasure.

This does not mean that you should neglect reading for pleasure because reading a lot of native material, even if it is easier than the JLPT N1 texts, will help you to read faster. As you know if you have already taken the JLPT, time is key, especially for the reading part.

If you answer the questions in order, what will happen is that you will run out of time when you reach the very long texts, the comparative texts and the questions where you have to find information in a notice or pamphlet. This is a shame because I think that these last exercises are the easiest ones, the ones where you can answer right if only you have enough time to read them slowly and in a state of full concentration. The problem is that you certainly run out of time when you reach the last questions, so you are too stressed to read them thoroughly.

So what I recommend is to:

  • Read a lot, even easier things, to improve your reading pace
  • Practice with a JLPT textbook to get used to those stupid questions and the even more stupid answers that look like they are all correct.
  • During the test, rush through the language knowledge section (either you know the answer or you pick one randomly, don’t lose time thinking about an answer if you don’t know it). Don’t forget that not having enough time for the reading part does not only mean that you won’t be able to finish it, it also means that you will be stressed, less able to focus on what you read, and that your overall performance on the reading section will suffer.
  • I personally don’t recommend to start answering the reading section before the language knowledge section for several reasons:
    • It will be harder to manage your time (when exactly should you start the “language knowledge” section if you feel that you are running out of time?).
    • It will be a source of stress to know that you still haven’t done this part yet, and you will be less able to focus on what you read.
    • I find that going through all the vocabulary and grammar questions is a good warm-up exercise. It can be tough to start with the texts. Going through the language knowledge section puts your brain on “Japanese mode” and it will be easier to understand the texts.


Given that I have done very little to improve my listening before July, I consider my score to be incredibly good. I even got a better mark at listening than at the language knowledge section even though I spent all these months buried under vocabulary and grammar! I don’t think that I am the best person to talk about listening tips so I’ll try to improve for December, and hopefully, I’ll be able to give you some advice this Winter!

Practice test

I have taken several practice tests, and this has been one of the most useful things that I have done for the JLPT. You should definitely take at least one practice test before the actual test to get used to the questions, but if you have the time and can afford a book of mock tests, you should try to practice as much as possible.

The more you practice, the less intimidating the JLPT N1 becomes. At first, I found it very hard to stay focused during the whole test, and my capacity to concentrate would inevitably suffer during the reading and listening questions. But after taking several practice tests, it became much easier to stay focused throughout the whole test. In July, when I took the real test, I had no problem staying awake.

The first time I took the JLPT (N4), I was so intimidated that I lost a lot of time checking if my answer was right. I would read and re-read the question to be sure I understood it. Once I had answered, I would double check my answer to be sure I had the right one. Through this process, I lost a lot of precious time. Now that I am used to taking the real JLPT and practice tests, I have gained confidence and don’t lose time double checking everything.

Another good point is that taking practice tests has helped me with time. After taking two or three tests, you will know how to manage your time better. Don’t forget that you will need all your concentration to answer the reading section, so you cannot afford to dedicate a part of your brain activity to counting the time and stress about it. When I was taking the actual test, I would sometimes start to stress about the time, especially when I didn’t understand what I had read and knew I had to read the same text one more time. But then I would think: “I have been here before, and I know that I have enough time to read this text twice and slowly”. This helped me to put any time-related stress apart and concentrate on the texts.

Why I am taking the JLPT N1 once more in December

My real goal is to improve my Japanese level, not to pass the JLPT. To be honest, I don’t really care about having the JLPT or not because I don’t need it for my studies or work.

I am studying Japanese on my own, and I don’t usually have difficulties finding motivation to do things in Japanese and to slowly improve my level through immersion. What I find very hard to do is to really study Japanese: add new words to Anki, learn new grammar, etc.

Now that I have reached a level where I can enjoy a lot of mystery and detective novels (my favourite genre), it is very difficult to find the motivation to learn more things. It is so much easier to stagnate.

This is where the JLPT proves itself useful. I would never have learned so many words and grammar points without the prospect of taking the test. “I want to improve my Japanese” is unfortunately not a sufficient goal to me, I need something more concrete.

This is why I am thinking of taking the JLPT N1 once more in December and maybe… once every year! I know it might sounds strange, but I know I will never be able to read books on History or “literary fiction” if I don’t force myself to learn new words regularly.

I like the idea of having the JLPT coming every year in December. It will be a good concrete goal to keep in mind throughout the year. I will certainly not study as hard for it in the upcoming years, but I am sure that it will help me to find some motivation to learn new words, review the grammar and try to understand texts above my level.

My goal will be to get better scores than I did the previous time. Once again, I don’t really care about my score at the JLPT, it is just that I need a concrete goal.

Study guidelines for December

There are only three months left before December so I don’t think that I can achieve much before the JLPT.

I will focus on vocabulary because it seems to be my weakest point. I will continue to learn new words, but I will also try to study in a more JLPT-oriented way, and focus on synonyms and usage.

As for grammar, I don’t think that I will do much apart from reviewing what I had learned for July.

As far as reading in concerned, I know that I should work more on JLPT texts so I think that I will work in this direction. It just so happens that the novel I am reading at the moment has very difficult passages. This comforts me in the idea that working on challenging texts will be useful, not only for the JLPT, but for my reading level in general.

Finally, I don’t think that I will manage to work more on my listening, but I do listen to more Japanese now, mainly because I have a Netflix subscription. I don’t know if watching anime will help me to improve my performance at the JLPT, but it can hardly be worse than when I did no listening practice at all!


I have taken the JLPT four times and every time my Japanese level has greatly improved. I am sure that I would not be where I am now if I had never taken the test. I don’t need the JLPT to stay motivated with Japanese or even to study Japanese because I love doing it and it is my main hobby now. But if I hadn’t studied for the test, my progress would have been much slower, and I always tend to be discouraged when I feel that I make no progress at all.

The JLPT might not be a good mirror of your abilities in Japanese, and of course, having passed N1 does not mean that you can communicate in Japanese. But more than the test itself, it is the preparation it requires that I find so valuable: it forced me to be assiduous and diligent and to learn a lot of new things.