Studying for the JLPT N1

For those that probably aren’t aware, I took the JLPT N1 exam a few weeks ago (July 2015). This was the first time I’ve taken the exam. I took the N2 in July 2013 in Japan and managed to scrape by it. I felt like I was significantly better prepared for this exam compared to the N2 and yet felt like the N1 had decided to clean house and use my face as the mob. It was painful.

Whether I failed or managed to skim a pass I won’t know until September. But either way I plan on re-taking the exam this December (I’ll explain why at the end).

The following are some study tips I would recommend for those wanting to face this exam. I’ve noticed that some people find the N1 very easy and others find it a real challenge. Everyone learns differently and work differently. So some of what I’m suggesting will work for you, some might not.

I also suggest you check out How to Pass JLPT N1 in a Year or Less, and How I Passed the JLPT N1 by Michael Panda for other people’s approaches and advice.

[These can also be used for JLPT N2]

Next week will be a post on Tips for Taking the JLPT N1 Exam, which covers techniques you can use in the exam to help you pass.

NEW: MORE Tips for Studying for the JLPT N1 (books and resources for the N1)


Start ASAP – Give yourself a year to 6 months

Are you planning on taking the JLPT N1 in 6 months? Well my first suggestion is to START RIGHT NOW. Ideally give yourself a year, but if you only have 6 months then that’s plenty of time too. Study a little every single day for the next 6 months. The closer you get to the exam the more intensive you’ll need to study.

This is because until JLPT N2 there was a rough limit on what you needed to know for the exam. JLPT N1 assumes native High School level fluency. Which means what appears on the exam is anyone’s guess. So there’s a lot to study.

Giving yourself a year will allow you to ease into the study. Re-learn anything forgotten from the previous exams. Get as much vocabulary and kanji in as possible. Give yourself plenty of time incase set-backs arise.


Studying for the JLPT N1

Get Your Bases Covered – Vocabulary, Kanji, Grammar

Now, a lot of people will suggest using Shin Kanzen Master and Nihongo Soumatome, and I suggest you use these too. But these are just the basics and you need to get them mastered well before the exam.

So if you have some JLPT N1 specific kanji, vocabulary and grammar books; get them mastered 2 months before the exam.

As mentioned, this includes kanji, vocabulary and grammar from the previous JLPTs. Especially ones you didn’t learn the first time around, and ones you may have forgotten.


Go Beyond the Books – Start Reading, Keep Learning

As mentioned, you can work through the vocabulary, kanji and grammar books. Such as Shin Kanzen Master and Nihongo Somatome*, or even 2000 N1 Vocabulary. But they aren’t going to guarantee your success.

(*Nihongo Somatome misses A LOT so I suggest you don’t use these.)

Studying for the JLPT N1

Once you’ve gone back over your basics and mastered them it’s time to start reading.

Shin Kanzen Master reading volume is always recommended as a good book to work with. However, don’t just read your text book. Start reading news articles and blogs online which cover various topics. This will expose you to more various topics and writing style.

Every time you come across a word or kanji you don’t know make a note of it and learn it. Even if it’s a word you feel like you should know, or think you know, re-learn it. You obviously don’t know it that well if you struggled with it or forgot it out right. And do learn these words.

You can do so using Memrise (which lets you create your own flashcard courses). Or with good old pen and paper. It doesn’t matter how, you just need to learn them. The extra vocabulary and kanji that don’t appear in textbooks will give you that edge. And a greater all round understanding of Japanese.

Read every single day. Whether it’s in the morning, on the train to work/school, in the evening, doesn’t matter. Read every single day. Multiple times if possible.

Reading it the hardest part. The more you read the better you’ll be prepared. Not only for the reading section, but all of it.

Don’t just read a single book though, as I said, read various short news articles or blog posts.

Don’t just read the texts though, actually understand what’s being said. Good advice I read about once was to read through the text to get unknown vocabulary and kanji. Read through again to understand it, and then again to try and improve your speed. It’ll take time at first, but the more you work on it, (along with studying vocab/kanji), the faster you’ll get at comprehending and reading.

I hired a teacher through and we worked through reading textbooks together. He helped me with my reading comprehension, speed and how to answer the questions. There’s no point hiring a teacher to work on vocabulary and kanji which you can do in your own time. But reading with a native person was invaluable to help me understand why I got questions wrong.


Studying for the JLPT N1

Listen While You Work

Listening was my strong point. But if it’s not yours I would suggest working through a text book while studying the kanji, vocabulary and grammar.

After you’ve finished working on the book I suggest you then listen to NHK News podcasts. These definitely cover various topics and are spoken at the speed you’re expected to hear in the exam.

A really good technique to practice this section is to not just listen to them. Sit down and try and make notes of what they’re saying in English. You don’t have to write down entire sentences, just the odd word that helps you understand what’s happening in the story.


Find the Time

Finding the time to study is hard if you’re not a full time student. But if you’re serious about the exam, you can do it. Commutes, lunch breaks and after work are good times to practice. Even just standing around for 15 mins while dinner cooks, is time you could be spending going over vocabulary and kanji.


Setting Goals

I found setting myself goals helped to. As I said, one goal could be to get all the previous kanji, vocabulary and grammar done within a month. Then all of those from your text books 2 months before the exam.

Don’t panic if you don’t reach your goal though! The reason I suggest so much time in advance is to prepare for the unexpected delays that will impact your study.

For me I had set the goal of learning all the kanji and vocabulary from Nihongo Somatome a month before the exam. But due to delays it will now be 2 weeks before. So I suggest aiming to get it done 2 months before! (Also don’t use Nihongo Somatome, I made a mistake using these books, use 単語スピードマスター)


Studying for the JLPT N1

Practice for the Exam

You can buy legitimate practice books, but these are likely to be exams which were written by external people. They’re still good practice though!

Try and practice a past paper once a week from 4 weeks before the exam, so you’re practice it at least 4 times.

Do them as if they were exam conditions, except I suggest circling words/kanji you don’t know or are unsure of. Once your exam is done mark it, and, once again, make a note of all the unknown vocabulary/kanji etc and practice them.



General Advice:

  • Start at least 6 months before the exam (a year if possible).
  • Give yourself plenty of time for goals (expect delays).
  • Get a teacher to work with at least twice a week. (Can find online teachers who are good and reasonably priced on
  • Don’t just use textbook practice exams (if you can get hold of past papers, do).


  • Get some textbooks and work through them (aim for 2 months before the exam).
  • Write down and learn any new vocabulary and kanji you come across (even if they’re words you think you should know).


  • Don’t just use textbooks, read various texts and resources.
  • Understand what’s being said.
  • Read everyday.


  • Use a textbook if you find listening difficult (but don’t bother if you’re good at it).
  • Listen to NHK News podcasts (and other Japanese podcasts if you want).
  • Practice writing down notes in English to what’s being said.

Suggested Resources



Other J-Talk Posts:


On one final note: why am going to take the N1 again even if I’ve passed? This is because of a number of reasons. Because I felt like, although studying for the N1 my Japanese has improved. But I felt like the exam beat the crap out of me. I don’t like being beaten. I want to get better and re-take the test and get a better score next time. It also means that I’ll keep studying rather than get lazy, as it’s important to keep working on the things you’ve learnt lest you forget them (which my brain likes doing).