In this article I would like to address a confusion of a kind and a misconception of a sort that definitely exists in Japan, and to a certain, although lesser degree, outside Japan as well – and this refers to the difference between two tests/examinations of similar nature but of difference purpose, structure and level of difficulty.
One is officially called in English the Japanese Language Proficiency Test or 日本語能力試験 (and is also known in its abbreviated form as JLPT) and the other is the Japanese Language Examination or 日本語検定 in Japanese.
But before we begin talking about these two tests in particular let me first make a brief self-introduction.
My name is Evgeny Uskov – I am a Russian national living in Japan, and as far as it can be said based on publicly searchable information, as of January 2022 I happen to be one of three “foreigners” (understood in a sense of someone who is not a native Japanese speaker, and not a native kanji learner) who have passed the first level of the Kanji Kentei test (aside from Bret Mayer and John Brobst), and the only person fitting the definition of a “foreigner” above who has ever passed the first level of the Nihongo Kentei test.
One obvious caveat, which naturally needs to be pointed out here, is that both these statements, and especially the latter one about Nihongo Kentei, are only my individual assumptions derived from the fact I personally was not able to find any information on any other persons who may also have passed these examinations.
Thus, we have two possible options:
1) these statements / assumptions are factually true because no one else has done it;
2) either one or both of these statements / assumptions are wrong because although even if someone has passed those tests they didn’t bother in one way or another to make the information about their achievements publicly available on the Internet.
Leaving that aside, I passed the Nihongo Kentei level 1 in November 2020 after several years of unsuccessful attempts, and the Kanji Kentei level 1 in February 2021 on my 15th or 16th try.
Ok, enough about yours truly, and let us now return to the main topic of this video – comparison, and an attempt at disambiguation, of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and the Nihongo Kentei test.
As a general statement, it should be said that outside Japan the latter, that is the Nihongo Kentei test, is almost unheard of, and inside Japan these two tests are in many cases confused together to the bewilderment at some times bordering on consternation or perhaps even indignation of Nihongo Kentei’s takers.
Speaking about their particular differences, it should be stated that first and foremost these tests are administered by different entities (which are the Japan Educational Exchanges and Services and the Japan Foundation for the JLPT, and the Nihongo Kentei Iinkai for the Nihongo Kentei respectively) and exist for different although in a way similar purposes – that is to test one’s command of and an proficiency in Japanese language.
The main difference is that while the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, held two times a year in multiple locations all over the world, exists solely to test such abilities of those who study Japanese as a foreign language, the Nihongo Kentei, conducted only in Japan (also twice a year), can be taken by anyone regardless of which language happens to be their native one.
In fact, for whatever reason, JLPT organizers openly prohibit any native Japanese speakers from taking the test – even imposing background checks on applicants to the extent that, as far as I somewhere heard, even if someone is not a native Japanese speaker but they have a Japanese sounding name to be qualified to take the test they would need to prove that they were raised and received their education outside Japan.
In terms of formal credentials, for many non-native Japanese speakers studying and learning Japanese language starts and ends with JLPT – usually (if they are serious and persistent enough) with its highest level – N1 which is commonly viewed as the final goal of one’s studies and an ultimate indicator of one’s Japanese language proficiency. Level N1 certificate is also widely used in many situations from admissions to educational institutions to being taken into account by the Japanese Immigration authorities among other criteria for granting stay permits.
In terms of the format, while JLPT is solely a so called bubble sheet multiple-choice test, and is checked automatically by scanning, answers for Nihongo Kentei are written down in various forms from putting a number corresponding to the correct answer to writing specific words or kanji.
So, to sum up the basic facts, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (aka JLPT) and Nihongo Kentei are two completely different tests.
The JLPT is a multiple-choice test organized all over the world (including Japan), and is meant exclusively for those who study Japanese as a foreign language, who can later use its passing certificates (especially of the N1 level) for various purposes from applying to schools to getting bonus points with the Immigration Service.
The Nihongo Kentei is held only in Japan, may require writing answers by hand, and although is open to anyone who can apply for it and take it, is mostly intended for native Japanese speakers. As for the practical value of the Nihongo Kentei, passing its certain levels can count for academic credits at some educational institutions or give bonus points to applicants for certain job positions that require a better than average command of Japanese language.
The confusion between the two is caused by the Nihongo Kentei’s relatively low profile not only outside Japan (where its publicity is almost non-existent) but in Japan as well, as very few ordinary people are aware of its existence at all let alone have any clear understanding of its content or have ever taken it.
And considering somewhat similarly sounding names, when they hear “Nihongo Kentei” many Japanese people may think that since it is a Japanese Language Test it must have something to do with testing the level of Japanese of those for whom it is not their native language (that is to say “gaikokujin”).
Examples of such cases of mistaken identity can be found in many job offer descriptions that ask for their prospective candidates to have some (usually the first) level of the “Nihongo Kentei”.
So, how these two tests can be compared in terms of their content and relative difficulty?
JLPT has 5 levels with the highest being the N1, and Nihongo Kentei has 7 levels with the highest being level 1.
To avoid going into much details, here I would like to focus exclusively on the highest levels of the respective exams.
Some sources say that in order to pass the JLPT N1 a person needs to have a working vocabulary of about 10,000 words – and although this may sound a bit too much it may as well be true depending on what can be considered to constitute a word in this context.
As for the N1’s questions, while some parts of the vocabulary and grammar sections are rather straightforward, and would not be of any difficulty whatsoever for an average native Japanese speaker, the reading comprehension section although definitely not as difficult, can to a certain degree be compared to the centralized University admission exam for high school graduates (or the so calledセンター試験), and may require even native speakers to read and analyze a text thoroughly to give a correct answer. As for the listening part, while it surely requires paying attention to the conversations featured there, native Japanese speakers would face no difficulty in answering its questions correctly.
So, in a nutshell, unless they have some specific learning disabilities or actively trying to fail the test, it is nearly impossible to think that an average native Japanese speaker would not be able to pass the N1 level of JLPT (whether they would be able to get a perfect score is another question as in addition to a general language proficiency it would require maintaining high level of attentiveness throughout the whole duration of the test).
Although some may disagree, but what also makes N1 relatively easy to pass even when we are talking about non-native Japanese speakers for whom it is designed for in the first place is its quite low passing threshold of less than 60 percent of correct answers.
But what about the first level of the Nihongo Kentei? Would it be possible for an average native speaker to pass it right away without any preparation?
The answer is unequivocally NO. Absolutely no. Not even for the level pre-1 which is awarded to those who get at least 70 percent of correct answers (level 1 proper requires at least 80 percent, and at least 50 percent accuracy for each of the constituent sections).
I will not go here into a detailed description of the Nihongo Kentei level 1’s content, but to give a general idea as to how difficult it is it would suffice to say that the passing rate can fluctuate from late teens and early twenties to single digits for particularly difficult tests.
And while questions in sections on polite speech and reading comprehension may theoretically be answered by simply having a generally good command of Japanese language (providing you have enough time to think and thoroughly read the texts given for reading comprehension which can be several pages long), sections on vocabulary and kanji go far beyond the material taught in schools, and require substantial amount of preparation for those specific parts of the test which to a large extent overlap with the content of the first and pre-first levels of the Kanji Kentei test.
I hope I was able to give you an idea about the difference between the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and the Nihongo Kentei test.