Besides getting married, the other big thing I did last year was pass the N1 Level Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). There wasn’t a great deal of information online about which textbooks are best when I was getting ready for this test, so I thought I would share the ones I found most useful here.
If you are anything like me you are going to need to study a big old pile of books! There are five areas you will need to cover: Kanji, Vocabulary, Grammar, Reading, and Listening. The best course books therefore form a five volume series with each book devoted to just one of these areas. When I asked around I found that the two main rivals for everyone’s favorite course books are the Shin-Kanzen Master (新完全マスター) series and the Nihongo So-Matome (日本語総まとめ) series. These two series both have their strengths and weaknesses. In some areas I found the Shin-Kanzen Master (SKM) book was better, in others the Nihongo So-Matome (NSM) book was best, and in other areas I found I needed both. These course books alone won’t get you ready for the test though. To consolidate what you have learned and to broaden your knowledge you will also need to invest in some books of drill exercises and practice tests and maybe some reference books too. I found some great books for these purposes which I list below.
1. Japanese-Language Proficiency Test Official Practice Workbook N1
This is the official test practice book from Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (JEES) and pretty much the only book of any use that they do produce. It consists of one mock test with answers, plus an outline of the level. You need to get a copy and give the test a try because it will give you a good idea of the structure of the test. Unfortunately, since the JLPT was revised in 2009 JEES no longer issues past test papers, so this is basically all you have to go on. Be warned however, that it will not give you an accurate idea of the level of difficulty. The mock test’s listening section in particular is deceptively easy, and you should be aware that the real listening test is much harder. On the other hand there was some unusually difficult grammar points in the mock test that I haven’t encountered in the real test or in any textbooks either. Fortunately the other books I recommend below also include regular test practice at a more realistic level and that will get you ready for the big day.
However, the structure of the official mock test is exactly the same as the real test, with exactly the same kind of questions, and even for the listening examples at the beginning of each section, the recordings are exactly the same! Familiarize yourself with the structure, question types, and those recordings and give yourself a few valuable extra seconds on the day.
2. 語彙 – Vocabulary
I used just one book for this: the Nihongo So-Matome Vocabulary text. Similar to the other books in this series, this book is divided into an 8 week course with 6 days of study each week followed by a timed weekly test. There’s no fancy study method with this book. Each day’s lesson consists of a list of at least 30 new vocabulary items on a given theme with some contextual phrases or sentences. The contextual phrases have English translations but the word lists do not. There is a mini practice test for each day’s lesson too. As I say, there’s no special method employed here. You just have to slog your way through it. But the vocabulary list is very good and it will give you a very strong bedrock of N1 level vocabulary that you can then build on with vocabulary you pick up from the other textbooks I recommend (below), from practice drills, and from other activities (TV, movies, conversation practice etc). I did not use the Shin-Kanzen Master Vocabulary book, although I did flick through it in the bookstore. Having already studied the NSM Vocabulary volume though, SKM Vocabulary book looked a bit too easy and I didn’t think it had anything to add. I’d recommend the NSM volume for getting to grips with the essential material for the test.
3. 漢字 – Kanji
For this section I have to recommend the Shin-Kanzen Master Kanji book as my favorite. I thought this book was great and studied in conjunction with the Reading volume in the same series I saw both my kanji recognition and reading ability advance by leaps and bounds. This book is divided into three broad sections: a kun-yomi section, an on-yomi section, and some general tests of your overall ability at the end. There is also regular test practice throughout to help fix those oh-so-forgettable kanji in your head. There is no English to help you in the SKM series but this book does ease you into your studies with some simple picture matching exercises at the beginning. And this book is particularly good at making clear the differences in usage between kanji with similar meanings such as 会う and 遭う for example.
After completing the SKM Kanji book, I also studied the NSM Kanji volume. The NSM volume has the same 8 week course structure as the NSM Vocabulary book described above, with daily lists arranged by theme, daily practice tests, and a timed weekly test. I found the NSM Kanji book useful for review purposes, but if you only have time for one book, you should definitely invest in Shin-Kanzen Master Kanji.
4. 文法 – Grammar
Grammar was the area I started with and I chose the NSM Grammar book to begin with for the simple reason that it had some English. At that point the N1 Level seemed like a massive mountain I had to climb and I felt like I needed all the help I could get. I don’t regret studying this book, but I think I should have used the SKM Grammar book first and then used the NSM book for review. Believe me, you are going to need to review. There’s a lot to get through and I found it took both books to properly fix it all in my mind.
The Shin-Kanzen Master Grammar volume is divided into 3 parts which correlate with the 3 types of test question you will face in the Grammar section of the exam: multiple choice fill-the-blank-in-the-sentence questions, put the words in the right order problems, and longer passages with fill-in-the-blank options. I found the first section to be the strongest in this book. There are 20 chapters in this first section which introduce 5 or 6 related grammar points. There are very clear explanations in Japanese, good example sentences, and exercises that help you to see clearly the usage differences between grammatical phrases that are easily confused. After every four chapters you get a review test to help consolidate what you have learned. This first section is solid gold and will help you get to grips with the essential grammar. The second section is much shorter, but builds on the first, adding some more phrases, and giving you a deeper sense of roots of the language. The third section I couldn’t get along with at all. It seemed overly difficult, obscure, and not so helpful – to a degree that actually felt quite demoralizing. However, I also realized it wasn’t my fault. When your Japanese wife can’t make head-nor-tail of the material, then it’s time to move on. I’d recommend getting this book for the first two sections which are really useful, then trying the third to see if you are up to the challenge. However, if like me you find the third section too hard – skip it and move on to the NSM Grammar volume.
The NSM Grammar volume is the familiar 8 week course book with 6 daily lessons introducing similar grammar points, some daily exercises and a timed test every 7th day. The example sentences are given with English translations but the actual grammar points aren’t. I used a couple of online resources for that though: https://www.renshuu.org/ and http://japanesetest4you.com. However, usually when hunting for obscure grammar points, if you type the grammar point into Google with the English word “grammar” something helpful will come up. But I digress! The NSM book is useful for three reasons:
* it has some more grammar points that aren’t in the SKM book but that you absolutely still need to learn.
* it will give you some supplemental memorable example sentences that will help you review and remember what you have already studied.
* it has regular and realistic timed test practices that will get you ready for the big day.
That last point is probably the most important point of all.
5. 読解 – Reading
For this section I found the Shin-Kanzen Master Reading volume to be exactly what I needed. There is a lot of practice at exactly the right level of difficulty, and ongoing guidance throughout that helps you to develop your reading technique. I’d recommend studying this volume in tandem with the SKM Kanji book reviewed above and you’ll see a huge improvement in both areas. If I had to recommend just one book, it would be this one. However, because the Reading section comprises a third of the test, and there is a lot of material to get through in a very limited time – you need lots of reading practice. One book probably won’t be enough.
The NSM Reading Comprehension text is a 6 week course book which focuses on the way written language is structured and on helpful words and phrases to look out for. This book will help build your technique, however, the level of the practice passages is a lot easier than what you will face in the actual exam. If you think you have time, study this book first, develop your technique and then move onto the more challenging material in SKM Reading. If you are not sure you will have time, jump straight into the SKM Reading volume and use the NSM book for review.
6. 聴解 – Listening
Whatever you do – do not underestimate this section. When I took N1 test I was surprised (and dismayed) by how difficult the Listening section was. I felt like none of the textbooks I had studied had really prepared me for it. The SKM volume in particular was really weak in this area and I cannot recommend it as the listening exercises were far too easy.
The NSM Listening book however, does have a lot of practical listening technique building exercises. More importantly it also contains the kind of vocabulary you are likely to hear in the exam: the kind of language used in business meetings, in train announcements, or when discussing how best to dispose of 大型ごみ for example… This book is the slimmest in the series and comprises a shorter 4 week course. So I would recommend working through it – and then work through it again to fully familiarize yourself with hearing that specialized vocabulary. Just studying a textbook isn’t really enough for this section though. You need to get some conversation practice with native speakers, watch the TV news, TV dramas, and also watch movies to get yourself used to a range of speaking styles. The test practice drills I recommend below will also prove to be your salvation.
7. Test Practice Drills
After you have worked your way through the textbooks listed above you need to get some test practice. Back in the day (pre-2009 when I studied for the old 2級 exam) practicing past test papers was widely recognized to be the best preparation for the exam. Unfortunately, (since 2009) JEES no longer issues past test papers. However, there are some good textbooks available that will help you develop your test technique, consolidate what you have learned and also build on it. I worked my way through a few different books, but the Drill & Drill (ドリル&ドリル) series from Unicom was definitely the best. In the weeks leading up to the exam I worked on these drills every day, and then I worked on my mistakes. I found this series also included some useful grammar and vocabulary that I hadn’t encountered in my other studies. I absolutely hate sitting exams, but working my way through this series gave me the confidence I needed to get through the test and to pass it. Highly recommended!
ドリル&ドリル日本語能力試験N1 文字・語彙 is available from amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.co.jp
ドリル&ドリル日本語能力試験N1 文法 is available from amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.co.jp
ドリル&ドリル日本語能力試験N1 聴解・読解 is available from amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.co.jp
Two other books I also found useful are:
新にほんご500問 N1 – 500 questions testing the kanji, vocabulary and grammar from the Nihongo So-Matome course – available from amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.co.jp
日本語能力試験N1予想問題集 – a general test practice book – available from amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.co.jp