The 10 JLPT Commandments

By Donald Ash | Japanese Language Proficiency Test

For years the Japanese Language Proficiency Test has been the official yardstick that non-Japanese people to measure just how good their Japanese really is. Whether you’re taking level N5 or have the chutzpah to try for level N1, here are ten universal laws to keep in mind when preparing for exam. These rules are so important, in fact, you may want to grab a hammer and chisel to clink them down on the nearest stone tablet you can find.

I’ll wait…

Okay. Ready?

The JLPT deadline for the July 2014 test will soon be upon us (April 30th to be exact). There is still a little bit of time.

JLPT COMMANDMENT 1: Thou Shalt Have Graven JLPT Images & Likenesses

If you’re really trying to ace your JLPT, no matter where you are on your learning journey, finding resources that closely mirror the test you’re taking can be a Godsend (pun intended).

  • Find books that do mock exams.
  • Find workbook drills that model actual questions you’re going to be answering.
  • Find listening practice that closely mirrors the style and speed of what you’ll be hearing on your test.
  • Find grammar books that have challenging questions but great explanations.

Being familiar with the types of questions you’ll be testing on will only make the exam that much more comfortable when you take it.

COMMANDMENT 2: Thou Shalt Know Thy Level

Easy is relative. No two people have will have the exact same Japanese proficiency, no two people will have studied the exact same amount or even in the way. Be honest with yourself about your abilities, even if you’ve been in Japan for a while.

Please don’t get caught up in “peer pressure testing.” If your buddies are in “ikimasho mode” and they’ve all decided to team up and get N2 trigger happy, but you secretly feel more confident at N4, go with the test YOU are comfortable with.

Yes, there are exceptions to this rule of course.

Some people do thrive under the pressure of doing something way beyond their limits, but I think that’s rare. I like to think that most people can handle  challenges within reason, especially if you’re putting the study time in. Knowing your true level can easily translate into better JLPT scores.

Tip from the Heavens: “My child. Tarry to thy favorite bookstore, walketh to the testing section and flippeth through some questions to see how much you can answer/understand. Findeth a level where you can grasp at least 40-50% (more if you can) of the questions and test. This will give you several months to worketh on what you don’t know. Ganbatte.”

COMMANDMENT 3: Thou Shalt Have a Study Plan

Study, study, and study some more. As much as I want to say you should study a little bit everyday, everyone has different study habits. I used to be a habitual crammer until I started trying these JLPT tests.

For some reason, Japanese prep is different for me, mainly because it can be a lot to memorize. To study and retain I try to put in an hour-and-a-half to two hours a day to keep me from pulling out my own hair (did somebody just make a bald joke?)

I treat it almost like a weight-training split:

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Find a study plan that suits your style, and for God’s sake STICK TO IT!

COMMANDMENT 4: Thou Shalt Not Take Thy Test Date in Vain

Please don’t think that you have more time than you do.  I only say it because I’ve been there!

You only made it halfway through your study materials and you just looked at a gigantic chunk of unknown kanji at about 3:00am (the morning of the test) in a heroic, all-night study attempt.

There are few worse feelings than walking into an exam knowing that you’re about to become a burnt human sacrifice.

Test dates will creep up on you like serpents in a magical garden.  If you’re serious about taking the test, why not start studying well in advance? It can mean the difference between passing and failing.

COMMANDMENT 5: Thou Shalt Covet Other Study Materials

Having a base Japanese textbook to help you build a vocabulary, kanji, reading, and listening foundation as solid as stone pillar is a wonderful idea. BUT, I do think it can be helpful to look at other books on occasion, just to be sure you don’t have any major information gaps.

When’s the best time to do this?  WAY before the test. The earlier the better.  Flipping through another level-appropriate textbook a few days before the test and realizing “I don’ t know any of this stuff!” can be a real confidence buster.

Try doing this several months out, while being consistent with your main textbook, and I think you’ll really surprise yourself in a good way.

COMMANDMENT 6: Thou Shalt Practice What You Learn

One of the best ways to get all of the vocabulary, kanji, and all of those brain-twistin’ Japanese grammar rules to stick is to practice them! Talk with people as much as you can, see what kanji you can spot on the train, see if you can pick out any of the words you’re studying on Japanese TV programs.  For those actually taking the test in Japan, there are an unlimited number of chances for you to practice and reinforce what you’re studying.

COMMANDMENT 7: Thou Shalt Consult With Other Successful Test Takers

How do you even know which materials are going to be useful for the test you’re taking? Don’t reinvent the ホイール!  Model others who have successfully passed the very test you’re trying to take.  If you see successful members of a forum talking about how they love the hell out of the Kanzen Master Book Series, it may be time to click, and pay Amazon a visit.

COMMANDMENT 8: Thou Shalt Review…Often

Studying is super important, but reviewing what you study is equally important. If you don’t review (particularly for those on the higher rungs of the JLPT ladder) it’s going to be really tough to remember what you go over, even if you’ve put the time in!

One of the greatest things about living in the era that we do is that the review doesn’t have to be a chore.  Use technology to supplement your studying.  There is great SRS (spaced repetition software) out there, which will help you to absorb what you need to know, often without even realizing it, provided you actually use the software as it was intended.

Tip From the heavens: “Perhaps thou shalt downloadeth Anki.

COMMANDMENT 9: Honor thy Study Time

When it’s time study, how many of you have ever found a way to do everything but crack open that book?  (Donald slowly raises his and looks around the room)

When it’s time to “buckle down” and study, all of a sudden you have to pee, or your eyelids inexplicably drop to half mast, or you have to jump on Facebook messenger really quick, or watch one more YouTube video, or call your significant other.

It’s almost like your brain is saying “NO! PLEASE! ANYTHING BUT STUDYING JAPANESE!”

For me I’ve found that I have to be away from beds and people who I might be inclined to socialize with:

  • Beds and studying Japanese don’t go together for me. At the first sign of fatigue, I’m under that blanket and I’m out!
  • As much as I love chatting. When I’m studying, I don’t like it. That’s why I do a lot of studying on my own. You may be different, though.

When it’s time to study, kick, fight, claw, scratch, do whatever you have to do to make sure that you can get in there and get some effective study time in.

COMMANDMENT 10: Thou Shalt Not Do Dumb Things During the Exam

Failing the JLPT because it was a little tougher than expected is 100% respectable. Getting carded* for doing something dumb like cheating or talking during the test? Not so respectable. Don’t be that guy.  Don’t be that girl.

*The JLPT actually uses a card system to silently warn or eject people who are caught talking or cheating on the exam.


For all of you successful JLPTers out there, what would your ultimate JLPT commandment be? Please leave it in the commandments er…comments section below.


Don’t forget that the deadline for the upcoming July test (Sunday July 6th, 2014) is on April 30th, 2014 by 5:00pm. Or if you’re applying by mail, be sure to have your application postmarked by the April 30th!

Good luck to everyone who’s getting ready out there!


About the Author

Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.

  • Fran Ferran says:

    Very helpful, Donald. I have slacked off on my studies and have been thinking about starting back.

    • thejapanguy says:

      Yep, I know all about slacking off. I do it myself from time to time.
      The whole learn Japanese thing is a constant process, though, right?
      My inspiration to study comes in spurts. Lately I’ve been in “頑張って mode.” Let’s just hope I can stay there long enough to pass the next exam and actually improve my Japanese in the process.
      (Whew! Thanks for the correction, I’ll take care of that ASAP)

      • Fran Ferran says:

        Yeah, it’s a constant process and like you, my inspiration comes in spurts. Anyway, you seem more interested and committed than I am so you’ll be alright. All the best in the next exam!

  • Trey says:

    Thank goodness you’re back Donald. Thought you were dead or in a coma!

    • thejapanguy says:

      Hahaha! Thanks Trey!
      No comas, or death, as far as I know.
      Been a bit silent, but yep I’m still around 😀

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