I’ve seen this question crop up a few times lately. Or at least different iterations of it. Do I need to pass the N1? Do I need to learn N1 grammar/kanji? How often do you use N1 level Japanese? How useful is the JLPT N1 certificate?
A lot of people reply that the test doesn’t actually show you your Japanese ability, only how good you are at testing. And that the grammar, kanji and vocabulary you learn at N1 level isn’t actually used by Japanese people, at least not in their daily lives. And these statements are both true and not true.
Here’s why the JLPT N1 is great, but also why it may or may not be for you.
What Is Considered JLPT N1 Japanese?
There is no official list of kanji, vocab, and grammar for the N1. According to the official JLPT website the N1 tests “The ability to understand Japanese used in a variety of circumstances“. This means you should, in theory, be able to pick up pretty much any Japanese text and read it without issue. Obviously this varies depending on how much you learn, you can study half the material considered N1 and still pass the test.
The wider Japanese learning community summarize the amount of Japanese you need to know to 2000 kanji and 10,000 vocabulary, and a lot of that is considered obscure, or language that’s used in very specific situations.
But if you’ve been studying Japanese up to at least JLPT N3-N2 then you’ll start to get a feel for what is N1 Japanese. KawaKawa has a good summary of what the N1 exam entails, how it differs from the N2, as well as suggestions for study resources.
Do Japanese People Actually Use N1 Level Japanese?
You may have heard people say that Japanese people don’t actually use N1 level Japanese, and that’s somewhat true when it comes to daily conversation Japanese. You don’t need high register, formal language, or complex vocabulary when talking to a family member or friend in Japanese.
But if you’re discussing current issues, or topics that interest you, then you will likely end up using N1 vocabulary.
It’s also useful for people who live and work in Japan. The Japanese used every day in companies and on official documents (such as forms, notices, and important letters) will use vocabulary, kanji, and grammar that’s on the N1 exam.
If you’re also an avid reader and enjoy literary fiction, then you might want to study N1 Japanese because a surprisingly large amount of N1 vocabulary and kanji appears in novels. In fact, a lot of advanced Japanese is only used in writing and not speaking, and it really helps to distinguish between written and spoken Japanese.
I’m often surprised by the number of places an N1 word that I just learned pops up!
Do I Need to Study N1 Japanese to Understand Japanese?
No! As mentioned, N1 level Japanese consists of a lot of high register and field specific language. If you want to understand day-to-day Japanese then you can get by without studying N1 Japanese.
Even when advanced Japanese or kanji appear in documents you might find in your daily life, it’s easy to look them up (hurray for modern technology and the internet!)
Even reading novels, you can get by understanding 80% of the text (depending on the books difficulty and your familiarity with the subject.)
How Useful is the JLPT N1 Certificate?
Japanese ability aside, the certificate itself is incredibly valuable if you want to live in Japan or have a career tied to Japan.
If you are looking for a career where you work for a Japanese company and/or use your Japanese, then the N1 certificate is great for getting your foot in the door.
The JLPT N2 is also really good for getting your foot in the door, but in a country where qualifications matter more than ability, the N1 certificate will instantly put you among the top candidates. Whether you can speak the language or not, the certificate itself displays a certain comprehension in reading that is appealing to many companies.
If you would like to eventually become a Japanese perminant resident, then the N1 certificate is another feather in your cap when applying for permanent residency.
I want to note, however, that you don’t need the N1 certificate to live and work in Japan. Many people are able to get jobs teaching English and even get positions working for major companies without it.
Do I Really Need JLPT N1?
You don’t need to study JLPT N1 Japanese, but doing so can open a new part of the language to you.
You don’t need the JLPT N1 certificate either, but getting it can open new career paths to you.
The certificate can lead to opportunities for living and working in Japan, while the knowledge from studying for the exam can make it easier to understand important documents, novels, the news, and more focused topics.
It’s really up to you if you think the N1 is worth it.
Side note: I personally enjoy studying Japanese and find that every time I study N1 Japanese I always learn something new that I then see in a novel or on TV. I like studying for the exam because it’s a good way to keep me studying and keep my Japanese skills sharp.
But the JLPT exam is not for everyone. If it causes you stress and anxiety then you don’t have to learn it just because other people say you “should”. Learning Japanese really is a personal experience.
Useful Articles on Studying for the JLPT N1