You know it’s that time of the year when it’s 8:30am on a Sunday and you see a foreigner on a Tokyo subway – not rare, but uncommon. Then you see another. Then another. You find yourself all getting off at the same station. Then the four of you meet another posse of five foreigners at Shibuya coming from a different line, converging like rivulets becoming a stream. Finally, you see a train packed with foreigners, their noses stuck in books, the stream becoming a mighty torrent snaking towards Tokyo University. There’s probably only one time in the year you can see this: exam time.
Yes, today that that day of the year for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). It’s one of the primary qualifications of Japanese ability, ranging from level 4 (beginner) to level 1 (fully functional / fluent, able to enter Japanese universities and companies). Last year was level 4, so this year I had a go at level 3. It’s a slightly grueling event, a multi-part exam covering vocabulary, kanji, reading ability, grammar and the dreaded listening. It’s conducted under university examination conditions, and given that several thousand people take the test at Tokyo University alone, there’s mercifully no speaking component.
Since languages are such a vast body of knowledge, it can be difficult to prepare. However, the greatest asset you have is the same one as in high school and university exams: past papers.
(Side note – the 16-18 you can see above are actually year numbers referring to 2004 – 2006. In some official documents and the like in Japan, years are counted using a system based on the number of years since the ascension of the emperor at the time. The current period is the Heisei period and the Emperor is in the 20th year of his reign, so 2008 is Heisei 20. 1970 is Showa 45. Still, you’ll see regular Gregorian calendar years much more frequently.)
Unfortunately, the JLPT examiners are less lazy than most university lecturers, and actually change their questions from year to year. So, while doing a past paper gives you a good idea about how you might go, I’ve found that the questions from year to year can vary significantly in terms of difficulty.
All things considered though, Tokyo University is a nice place for an exam:
There was even a game of field hockey at lunchtime for amusement. I learned that Japanese for “Kick it to me” is “Oi, oi!”.
Of course, the first problem that examinees face is finding their way to the exam venue based on Japanese navigation signs. Based on the number of people who sailed past the correct train station after they mistakenly took the express train, it’s an uphill battle even before you’ve sat down.
So, it’s all over for another year…. which means there’s no time to lose getting started on JLPT 2.