Was The JLPT Worth It?

Recently, I had a good conversation with a new blog reader about the JLPT (日本語能力試験). Long-time readers might remember that I studied (and passed) the JLPT N4 (formerly called the JLPT3) many years ago, then the N3 and finally the N2. The N2 is not the highest level, but it’s somewhere between intermediate and advanced. The highest level, the N1, is a long, grueling test to study for, and now that I have 2 kids, I don’t really have the time or energy to study for it.

Looking back, I kind of regret spending so much time, effort (and money) on the JLPT. It was fun to start, but as the tests get more difficult, they focus more and more on literacy, not fluency (i.e. conversation), so you spend more and more time learning grammar that isn’t used very much, and vocabulary that’s too advanced to be used in normal life. I was disappointed when I realized that even with an N2 certification, my conversation skills weren’t very good. Also, some of the N2 study material was the same grammar I would sometimes see on my daughter’s Japanese TV shows like Shimajiro, Chibi Maruko, etc.

But what about job prospects? Many jobs in Japan for foreigners require a minimum of a JLPT N2 certification.

I did sincerely look for jobs in Japan for a while. In 2010 and 2011, I had a couple job interviews with Japanese tech companies (Rakuten for example), and in both cases I failed. I think the main reason I failed was because my skills were not a good fit for those job positions. However, during the interview, when I tried to speak Japanese, I felt embarrassed because my conversation skills were worse than expected. Tech companies often give interviews in English for foreigners like me, but the language problems were kind of humiliating. Good jobs for foreigners (enough to support a family) in Japan are hard to find anyway, and since I can’t really speak Japanese anyway, it’s very unlikely I could get a job in Japan ever.1

It reminds me of something. When I was 23, I had graduated from college, came back from 2 months in Vietnam and dropped out of graduate-school to pursue a career in computing instead.2 At first, I had a hard time finding jobs. So I spent a lot of free time focusing on getting certified in Linux, computer-networking, etc. The certifications didn’t help as much as I hoped. And when I started working in the IT industry, I realized those certifications hadn’t been very useful. I did learn some useful things because I was experimenting at home, but in an unfamiliar situation, I still struggled. Now, 10 years later, I’m very comfortable with Linux and computer-networking because I use it almost every day.

The same is true with Japanese, English, or any skill: you have to use it every day. You don’t have to live in a foreign country, but you do need to “exercise” your skill daily (or almost daily). 10 minutes of reading here, 20 minutes of listening there. It’s better to read in a foreign language 10 minutes a day, than 2 hours once a week. The more you exercise it, the better. Simple as that.

If you do have good Japanese skills, the JLPT is one way to confirm this. If your focus is on passing the JLPT though, you’re kind of wasting your time because you’re putting the “cart before the horse”. Looking back though, I should have spent more time focusing on getting more fluent at the language, not passing exams.

1 To be honest, we’re not interested in moving to Japan anymore. We feel our half-Japanese kids would have an easier life here in Seattle which has many bi-racial children, instead of Japan where they would stand out too much. International schools in Japan are too expensive, and I’ve noticed that kids who grow up in international schools don’t fit in well into Japanese society (some of them don’t even speak Japanese well). So, unless things change, we’ll stay in Seattle or the West Coast in general.

2 Bad timing too, I came back without a job a couple weeks before September 11th happened. So, I had no practical job skills and the economy was really bad. It took about 9 months to find a job, and 9 years paying off the credit cards I used during the time I was out of work. Debt and unemployment are no laughting matter.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “Was The JLPT Worth It?”

  1. After 20+ years of studying, the vast majority of that trying to be competent at conversational Japanese; I’m in the opposite boat. I hit a peak conversationally a while ago, and the only way I’m able to move forward is by studying the kanji, vocabulary, & grammar that the JLPT tends to hit. Of course, studying kanji (and to lesser extent vocab & grammar) is very hard for me to stay motivated without a class, so in self-study I tend to fall off.

    If I might make a suggestion:
    If you really want to get better at the conversational part, you’re going to need immersion without a net. You may want to find a couple Japanese guy friends locally who don’t speak English, and pick a night to go hang out with them. Otherwise, on your next trip back to Japan, you might see about ditching the family for a day or two (even an evening or two), to go wander on your own and force yourself to interact; sink or swim. That being said, I still get nervous trying to talk to my in-laws on the phone, even though I lived with them for a week without speaking a word of English.

    On another note:
    Business Japanese is hard. I know of people with JLPT 1 certification who have more than passable conversational Japanese who refuse to speak Japanese at work. There’s even an entirely separate certification for speaking business Japanese (the BJT) and I’m not even sure that it helps all that much. I definitely wouldn’t take an interview as indicative of your level of conversational ability.


    1. Hi Eric, good to hear from you.

      Yeah, I definitely feel there’s a place for studying and such, but only after one has a solid foundation in the basics, which I never really got. I tried to jump ahead to the certification thinking that if I passed, I actually knew Japanese, when then was only partially true.

      Knowing and understanding, it turns out were two different things. :p

      Glad I’m not the only one who gets nervous talking to inlaws over the phone. I really choke if I talk with them on the phone.


      1. For me, it’s talking with anybody in Japanese over the phone. LOL

        ps – that probably should have been “pick a night each week to go hang out with them”.


      2. yeah, phone conversations in a foreign language are always scary. :p

        Hee hee, yeah, I knew what you mean. Though, with two kids these days, I don’t get a lot of free time anyway, so I’ll have to defer that idea for a little while.


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